I Am Josef Vissarionovich

Chapter One

The patient was crouched on his bed, rickety knees to his hollow chest, black eyes staring towards the small barred window, out to the pale grey sky. It was snowing in relentless wet streaks, but the room where he huddled was blisteringly hot. Only a few feet wide and ten feet long, it was heated by a gurgling, institutional radiator, coated in the early 1950s in thick, cream-coloured gloss paint that now came away in fat scabs.

The miserable tray of food, pushed through the flap at the bottom of his rusting door some hours ago, smelt bad. The patient had spent the day so far considering this meal – potatoes in a dense glutinous gravy, oily tea and bread – and he was considering it still.  In his grinding solitude he laughed a toothless echoing laugh at the walls, remembering the banquets laid out before him in reverence by Mayors, Generals, Prime-Ministers and Kings. Somewhere in the distance, carried along a maze of narrow corridors, he could hear the hollow screams of another inmate. He despised the weak and insane and did not count himself among them.

How long he had been here he had no idea. Nor, indeed, did he have any clue where in all the vastness of his homeland, his empire, he was. Only that the train, a wretched lifetime ago, had creaked on for days and nights before they wheeled him off, excrement-soiled, drugged, strapped to a trolley, still wearing a fine Savile Row suit, Argyll wool as blue as a Baku sky. What had they done with the suit? What had they made, after all, of his blinding vision?

For years, perhaps decades, they injected him so often that his very veins hardened against the assaults. They had resorted to jabbing his inner thighs, the skin between his toes, his buttocks, calves and the backs of his hands. He remembered, in an age when he had teeth with which to chew and hair on his head, back when he stood up to piss instead of lying damp in his own filth, how he had struggled and cried out. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ he raged. ‘Look at my face!’ It took four orderlies to restrain him, men whose breath smelt of vodka and salami, men who shoved rags in his mouth and drove cocktails of state-sanctioned poison into his blood. Deservedly? Perhaps. He smiled a papery smile at the memory of his struggle, how he had fought, how he had refused to be cowed by the rabid dogs. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ he muttered, though sometimes, nowadays, he wasn’t sure himself.

Now nobody came. The snow drifted down and the summer skies sang with birds, but nobody came. That drug-induced haze that had made him vomit and had caused his skin to peel away from his flesh and his brain to bubble in the cauldron of his skull had become his natural state. The haze was consciousness. His body was no longer his servant, he who could command legions of servants, legions of bodies. But his mind flickered yet. His mind, the random, pointless sparks of a dying, sputtering engine, produced strange sensations; the chafe of a ceremonial uniform against pomaded wrists, the sweet jasmine-dense air of a Tblisi summer evening, the rush of glory in his heart as he stepped on to a flag-billowing podium, and the wind-swept roar of the grateful crowd. At night, in the screaming emptiness, he might feel a woman’s hand on his brow, light and perfumed with lemon, or, in the buttery dawn, the weight of a plump and sleepy child on his lap, a freckled girl, or, as the clanging evening rounds began, the burning glow of a good Georgian brandy in his throat and the whiff of a cigar. These things he knew, gifts from his soul, and he guarded them fiercely with his silence, for memories and desires were his only possessions now, his only clues.

As he faced the plate of congealing food once more it became, for a moment, in his deceiving mind, a dish of freshly cooked plov, the lamb as tender as a girl, the rice golden as a sunset, the pomegranate seeds like rubies scattered over the food. Surely, he thought, he must be close to the end now, at last. Death would come as a friend with an outstretched hand, and a smile warm as dusk over the Caspian Sea.

Eyeing now his reeking, caked slop bucket, and spurred by a last decrepit defiance, the patient crawled to the end of his metal bed, the thin mattress sagging against the ancient springs even under his slight weight. The meat hung from his brittle bones as he moved, the force of gravity seeming to pull his body down to the worms, and the pyjamas that had once strained around his belly, today looked to have been made for a man four times the size.

He threw his spindly legs off the edge of the bed and positioned his feet on the concrete floor, the dark yellow toe nails long and curling. With a gasp of pain, the patient stood up, feeling the piss start to surge up in him. Proud, he began his first step, swayed slightly and then, as though bent by a light gust of wind, he came crashing down like a heap of twigs, hitting his head against the wall as he fell.

Thick blood seeped slowly from his head wound and formed a trickle that crept towards the door.  As his shivering eyelids closed, he heard the rustle of a woman’s satin dress above him, a champagne laugh and the heavy click of an expensive cigarette lighter.

{

‘Fuck me,’ said Dima, the orderly, peering through the small square of bars in the patient’s door, ‘Governor! Stalin’s down.’

He halted his trolley outside door 368 and he would normally have reached through the flap for the tray, wincing as his vertebrae pinched that bitch of a nerve, tipped the leftovers into the bin for the pigs, and moved on. Come to think of it, it was amazing that 368 was still alive at all, given how much he ate or, rather, how little.  The guy must be a hundred.

Had he smelt the old corpse’s blood like a grey wolf? Unlikely, given how much of the stuff swilled around this hell -hole. Had he just sensed the stillness in there? He wasn’t sure, but today he’d pulled back the metal plate and he’d looked. His colleague came running down the corridor towards him, keys clattering wildly in his hand.

‘Dead?’

‘Dunno. Looks like it. About time.’

The Governor peered in and then coughed up a week’s worth of phlegm.

‘No. He’s breathing. Pissed himself though. Have a look.’

Dima did not want to look again. He shook his head. Absurd to be squeamish in a job like this, like a radish on a jam donut, but he was.

The Governor unclipped a big, grey walkie-talkie from his belt and hit a button.

‘Can you get a medic up here? Stalin’s down. Head bleed. Yup. 368.’

He lit a cigarette and leant against the door.

‘Hasn’t even said a word for twenty years. At least.’

Dima shrugged.

‘I’ve only been here five years, Guv,’ he said. ‘I started in ’78.’

The Governor, who was in fact, only a ward sister in anyone else’s parlance, stared up at the strip of fluorescent light that flickered sickeningly above them.

‘Got to be twenty years at least. Shit. Fucking mad fucker.’

He spat some tobacco from the end of his tongue to the Linoleum floor.

‘Go on then. Get on with it. I’ll wait with the Gen Sec.’

Dima nodded. ‘Yes, Guv.’ He moved on to the next door flap, the next tray. Twitchy, he turned back at the sound of sharp footsteps. Both men tensed and braced their shoulders.

Zinaida Karlovna’s hairdo quivered and glistened and the harsh light.

‘What is going on here, Comrade?’ she demanded to know, swollen hands clasped in front of her, wedding band painfully tight on a sausage finger. ‘Drove that poor bastard into his grave,’ the Governor liked to say, though not when Zinaida Karlovna was in earshot.

‘368’s on the floor, Comrade Director. I’ve radioed for a medic.’

Zinaida Karlovna flicked open the hatch to see for herself, her uniform straining at the bosom.  She glowered.

‘Open the door.’

The Governor raised his eyebrows. Zinaida Karlovna rarely showed interest in patients as far gone as 368 and she never normally stalked the corridors. It must be something to do with the delegation. Delegation would be the fucking death of them.  Dima stood staring, open-mouthed, waiting to see what would unfold.

‘Get on with your round,’ the Director commanded him, taking him in with obvious distaste. She had heard that this oaf was taking the hospital’s food waste home for his pigs. Technically, this was stealing and she could have him arrested. She might yet, she thought. She didn’t want cretins like this showing up the Soviet Union’s mental health care system to the English guests.  The English guests! Even the most fleeting thought of the English guests made Zinaida Karlovna puff up with pride like a courting pigeon.

The Governor unlocked the patient’s door with a large metal key and had to heave himself against it to get the thing open.  Zinaida Karlovna screwed her nose up at the stench.  Manoeuvring her bulk with difficulty, she squatted down by the patient, exposing a vast expanse of quivering, dimpled thigh, and put her hand to his neck.

‘He’s alive,’ she said. ‘Hand me his drug charts.’

The Governor coughed as they both looked at the back of the door and the hook where no charts were to be seen.

‘There aren’t any. He hasn’t been medicated since 1972,’ he admitted. ‘We just put the food in and take slops out… once a week, Comrade Director.’

Zinaida Karlovna stared at the Governor as she raised herself up to standing.

‘When was the patient admitted?’

The Governor was beginning to feel panicked. What, was he supposed have details on all these nutters in his mind on the offchance that somebody started doing spot checks? There were over two thousand people in here.

‘I think he came in some time in ….in the mid – 50’s maybe. I was just saying to Dima, it must be twenty years since he said anything…’

‘Are you telling me that this man has been here for thirty years and has never before been presented to me?’

The air was dense with the stink of decay, the scorching radiators in the damp winter air producing a nauseating and almost visible wave of human wretchedness. The patient lay still on the floor between them.

‘Didn’t seem any point, Comrade Director. When you came he was already off meds, too far gone. He’s not…’ the Governor gestured towards the motionless body of the patient. ‘He’s not much trouble.’

‘What is his name? What is his crime? I need to see the paperwork on this patient, Comrade.’

‘I’ll look it out for you. Right away. He’s an enemy of the Soviet Union.’ He was relieved to have been asked one question at last to which he knew the answer.

Zinaida Karlovna nodded.

‘Is he indeed?’ she said, moving aside to let the medics in with a gurney.

‘He used to say he was Stalin,’ the Governor muttered, almost releasing a nervous laugh over the heads of the two young men in white who were securing the patient’s neck with a thick metal collar, routine procedure for a possible spinal injury.  ‘Over and over again, like. We’d shut him up, you know, but as soon as the drugs wore off he’d start again. Long time ago now, of course.’

‘Just get the floor cleaned,’ Zinaida Karlovna snapped. ‘The English will be here tomorrow.’

Zinaida Karlovna touched the small metal badge of Lenin on her lapel and came as near as she ever would to actually smiling.

In his letter Michael Sanderson had suggested that a small delegation of four might come to the Soviet Union and visit Zinaida Karlovna’s esteemed institution as part of an exchange of ideas on psychiatric care for dangerous criminals. Broadmoor’s director went on to say that he very much admired what he had read about Zinaida Karlovna’s ground-breaking work and felt that he and his colleagues might have much to learn from their visit. He also extended an invitation to her and a team of her choice to come to Broadmoor at some later stage. He described the gardening project he had personally pioneered (murderers gardening!) and the art and music therapy with which he had been achieving pleasing results. Zinaida Karlovna had put her hand to her throat and felt a flush rising through her neck to inflame her already ruddy cheeks. Broadmoor!

She coped effortlessly with the KGB. One man sat in front of her desk on a wooden chair and another stood ominously by the door.

How long had she been in contact with this Michael Sanderson of Broadmoor?

She had never even heard of him before today.

Was she planning a defection?

No.

Did she wish to expose the failings of her country to the eyes of the western world?

No! She was proud of her work, proud of her hospital, proud to protect her country from the criminal elements who would disrupt the hard work of good Soviet people.

The sitting stooge accepted a glass of cognac and smiled. She had not needed to lie.

‘You have hair a bit like Margaret Thatcher,’ he said, admiringly.

Privately, Zinaida Petrovna felt that she had a great deal in common with the British Prime Minister – both had worked hard in a man’s world to get where they were. Neither suffered fools gladly. She flushed deeply in florid purple patches.

‘Don’t try to flatter me, Comrade,’ she barked, standing up and offering her hand as a sign that the meeting was over, her credentials proved predictably impeccable.

And now, a long and arduous year later, the delegation was almost upon them. Tomorrow was only hours away. She felt a lump rise in her throat and she stomped away from room 368, hoping she would not be too late to queue for half a loaf of rye on the way home.

}

‘How are you today, Clive?’ Sanderson asked, as Clive sat down, shuffling a little in his old man’s slippers, but meeting the eyes of everyone in the room in turn.  Mid-fifties, well turned out, the uniform of a comfortably off middle-aged accountant, not of the average forensic psychiatric patient. The consultation room in which the ward rounds take place is windowless, brightly lit and peppered with alarm buttons but, on the whole, the sessions are a friendly enough updates on drugs, improvement in or deterioration of behaviour and any issue the patient wishes to raise (usually an objection to being medicated at all, though in Sanderson’s view the lot of them needed a life-long soaking in Clozapine and Lithium). Michael Sanderson shot a quick glance away from the patient. The observer met his eye and raised an eyebrow. Raine was training to be a psychoanalyst and had been coming to his ward rounds for what must be coming up for a year. He enjoyed showing her the sharp end of the profession though he didn’t much fancy her chances of psychoanalysing this lot. But she was bright and enthusiastic and reminded him that he’d been idealistic once too. Wrong, but idealistic. Naïve, but idealistic.

‘Not too bad, thank you, Dr Sanderson,’ Clive answered, settling himself in the plastic chair opposite his psychiatrist. ‘My joints are bit sore. The medicine is making my bones hurt.’ This was possible, but Sanderson chose not to comment. What could he do? Take him off the meds and let him loose? Hardly. ‘I think you know everyone in here?’ Sanderson smiled.

Clive had a quick glance around at the nurse, Sanjay, a young man who, though skinny, had been known to restrain even the larger patients when things got ugly; Angela, the psychologist, whose forays into the darkness of the disturbed human mind over the past thirty years had given her an exhausted look that extended even to her large collection of long grey cardigans and fatly beaded necklaces; Raine, the enthusiastic student observer of the mind in jeans, sandals and a man’s shirt, hoping to avoid notice and, of course, the two bouncers as Sanderson liked to think of them. In pride of place at the centre of the circle sat Dr Sanderson himself.

‘I think so,’ Clive nodded.

The first time Raine had seen Clive on his weekly chat with the psychiatrist she sat near one of the panic buttons on the wall, clutched her standard issue alarm and gawped at the nurses and psychologists who reported on his heartening progress at the day centre where he’d enjoyed ping pong, still life drawing and pottery. Sanderson almost goaded Clive just to see Raine’s response, though he preferred not to admit that to himself.

‘So, tell us, Clive, what you remember about the murder of your wife and her manicurist?’ he asked.

‘Only what you’ve told me, doctor,’ Clive nodded, smiling almost sheepishly. ‘I came home from work and stabbed them with a steak knife.’

‘And can you remember why you might have done that?’ Sanderson wondered, pleasantly.

‘They were evil?’ he asked, a school boy offering a hopeful, but surely wrong, answer.

Today though Raine was one of the initiated and had started writing her dissertation on the meaning of delusions – a projective identification with figures of importance as a defence against feelings of helplessness and despair. Clive, who had been happy to be interviewed, was to be at the centre of her essay, immortalised as Mr C.

‘Would you like a biscuit?’ Sanderson wondered, gesturing towards the tin on the low table where he had already placed his Styrofoam cup of coffee and his hefty sheets of patient notes though, God knew, there wasn’t much more you could really say about Clive.

Clive took a Bourbon biscuit and smiled.

‘So, Clive,’ Sanderson went on, as he always did, ‘have you thought any more about why you’re here?’

There was a long silence as Clive took this question seriously.

‘I know I’m here in Broadmoor, on Solent ward, and I know I committed a crime because you told me I did. But I think, as you know, that I’ve been solpanned in here and the world is trying to stop me completing my mission.’

‘And what mission is that, Clive?’

‘I can’t tell anyone who isn’t connected to the realm,’ Clive smiled, calmly.

After a few months on Clozapine, Clive had begun to talk about his inner world. And what an inner world it was.  Essentially, it had all started when he was ten and a next door neighbour had recruited him into the SAS. The next door neighbour was also called Clive and had explained to Clive Jr. that heaven was an orange in a pyramid of laser beams and that all the world’s institutions existed outside the beams. The special services were charged with attempting to rupture the beams in order to ensure that they were effective. This was a dangerous job and evil forces would try to stop him. Sometimes Clive was not sure whether the voices he heard were from the microchip installed in his brain by the SAS recruitment officer next door neighbour, or from the evil forces plotting his, and the orange realm’s destruction. When the drugs were working he said the chip might have been removed now that his mission was complete. When he was due for a top up he would insist that all the staff were colluding with the forces of evil to stop him testing the forces for good – the police, government, royal family.  He was not able, however, to link this system of thought with the frenzied blood bath he had wreaked on his wife and her beauty therapist that day that had followed 30 years of ordinary, though childless, marriage.

Sanderson looked over towards Angela and asked how she felt Clive had been doing this week. Angela leant forwards and her beads swung low.

‘Well, we’ve been talking a lot about your mum this week, haven’t we Clive? And we have been talking quite a bit about your negative feelings towards women.’

Clive lowered his head but didn’t say anything.  Clive’s mother, a very elderly lady from South London, visited regularly and often came to the ward rounds, usually insisting that there was nothing wrong with her son and that his wife had been a horrible woman who had finally got what she deserved. Clive never mentioned the realm system when his mother was there, but a few months ago she had got a bottle of Coca Cola in past security and he had smashed it immediately after her departure and rammed into the side of his neck. He spent two weeks in intensive care.

Raine recrossed her legs and Sanderson sighed.

‘Bitches and whores,’ Clive suddenly said.

Everyone looked up. Not that this was in any way an unusual view to hold, (Christ, most people who are never close to being hospitalised have the same opinion, Sanderson thought) but it was a big admission for Clive, who didn’t like to put himself across as a nasty person.

‘Is that how you felt about your wife?’ Sanderson asked him, eyebrows raised, pushing his glasses back up his nose. The room held its breath.

‘Why would you say that?’ Clive asked, all genuine bafflement. ‘I think you should know that Vimto cures cancer and diabetes.’

Everyone in the room breathed out, almost relieved that no big change was afoot. People were fond of Clive in his childish bewilderment and the staff were perhaps as reluctant as he was to hear the truth of his violence. Denial is infectious. Once people were drugged up to the eyeballs, settled into a routine of activities and resigned to the length of their sentence it was often hard to imagine them butchering the innocent, though they had. No doubt.

‘Right, well, we’ll have to have a think about that,’ Sanderson smiled and stood up to indicate to Clive that his consultation was over.

When he’d closed the door behind him Angela burst out laughing.

‘What’s he like?’ she snorted.

‘I know!’ Sanjay grinned. ‘I was thinking, oh my God, he’s going to confess! And then he’s just mad-as-a-fish Clive again.’

Sanderson shuffled the papers on the table and squinted at his list.

‘Right. Who shall we see next? You’re hoping I’m going to say Peter Sutcliffe aren’t you?’ he flashed a smile at Raine, but spoke before she could express a preference. ‘He’s not as interesting as you might think, actually. It’s already been a year and we’ve not really made much contact with him. Bizarrely inscrutable.’

Raine gave him one of her sexy laughs. He would have to be careful in Russia. Must remember to be a bit careful.  He noticed that he had not told Bea and the kids that a young observer was coming on the trip. Was she even that young? Probably thirty-five. That made it a fifteen year age gap. I mean that hardly made him a child molester. He wondered what loss he was feeling that he should feel the need to offload it on to his wife, and he ran his hands through his thick grey hair. His youth? His idealism?

Raine stood up, apologetically. She would have to leave early because there were a few things she had to do before they left tomorrow.

‘So, I’ll see you all at Heathrow?’ she said.

‘Yup. Bright and early for the Iron Curtain,’ he smiled. ‘Sanjay, can you let Raine out, please?’

‘Sure thing, boss,’ Sanjay said, jumping up with a jangle of keys.

‘Do svidanski!’ Sanderson experimented, reaching for a biscuit.

‘It’s do svidanyie!’ Raine laughed, and picked up her bag and her notes. ‘I’ll teach you how to order a vodka when we’re on the plane.’

‘Actually, we had better see Sutcliffe,’ Sanderson said when Raine had gone. ‘Could someone bring him in?’

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About Anna Blundy

Honorary psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychoanalytic Theory and another in Psychodynamic Clinical Psychotherapy. Novelist - Author of the Faith Zanetti quintet - The Bad News Bible, Faith Without Doubt, Neat Vodka (US - Vodka Neat), Breaking Faith, My Favourite Poison. Also a memoir of my father, Every Time We Say Goodbye and my most recent thriller - The Oligarch's Wife
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