Eddie was a bright guy. I met him at college where he was studying literature and poetry and he had a real passion for it all. He had a gift with words and loved a well crafted phrase loaded with booby-trap cleverness. Away from his subject though, away from the sphere of words and ideas he was different, quiet and withdrawn. He never really spoke about it, because people didn’t back then, but we all figured he was suffering from depression or some similar condition. He’d go through periods of quiet withdrawal and become a mostly silent presence in our groups and gatherings, perfectly polite and amiable but offering nothing except for the occasional clever spark of wordplay or wit that he couldn’t resist breaking through. I suggested a couple of times, gentle as you like because Eddie could take offense easily, that he got help and that we only wanted him to be happier. “I’m okay,” he’d say, or “I’m doing fine.” And he’d smile and act better around me for a couple of days just to shut me up.
He mistrusted doctors. He mistrusted medication fearing I think that it would make him less himself, or dull his wits somehow.
And then he improved. His mood lifted and stayed lifted, he began to smile more and laugh more, and to suggest things to us all, things we could do together. We were all so pleased at this change that we said yes to practically everything he suggested and our little group made excursions to the coast, to the theatre and even to poetry recitals at his instigation. The seaside trips and theatre outings were good, let’s leave it at that.
Then the Daily Mail ran one of their shock horror headlines. “Killer Drug Targets Mentally Ill”. Underneath the lurid screaming type was the typical scare story about something new that would undoubtedly bring British society to its knees. This week it wasn’t immigrants or left wing economics or young people listening to music, it was a new drug available over the internet (“When will ISPs hand over all their customer data to the police?” the article raged) that was supposedly a miracle cure for a wide spectrum of affective mental disorders. It was called Claritas, or Focus, or half a dozen other names and its exact source was unknown. The drug arrived (“shipped from clandestine sources” the Mail reminded us) in small black boxes with a yellow logo and users experienced a new sense of drive and enthusiasm for life. The article broke down at that point and started the usual rant about foreign influences, scroungers, the work-shy and people unable to stand on their own two feet. The last paragraph wiped the spittle from its chin and mumbled about untested, unlicensed pharmaceuticals and the risk of side effects. The USA it pointed out smugly had banned Claritas outright.
I mentioned it to Eddie later that day, thinking only to share our usual mockery of the gutter press and its hamfisted propaganda. Instead of joining in though he scowled and said quite bitterly that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Claritas, he said, had changed his life.
That surprised me. He’d always been cautious about drugs, medicines, even artificial sweeteners and he was the last person I would have expected to try something so unregulated from a peculiar online source. How are things going with that, I asked carefully. He lit up.
“Going great,” he said, “I can think again. I can enjoy the world around me. When I look at a flower I don’t just see the flower anymore.”
I asked him to explain.
“I see the flower behind the flower,” he said with a big grin, “the real flower. It’s hard to explain. I suppose you get in habits of thought, you see what you expect to see. When you look at a lily you see your own idea of a lily. Since I started taking Claritas I see the lily itself.”
“The lily without the mask?” I suggested liking the image. He liked it too and agreed. I heard him using the imagery himself several times afterward. The world, he said, was made up of masks and it was good to be able to see its face now.
It was a month later that I saw another change in Eddie. He’d turned up for one of our regular gaming nights but he was quiet again and I wondered if his depression had settled on him again, if the black dog had bitten. If it had it was worse than before and he seemed sullen and defensive the whole evening, barely speaking except when forced to and with irritation when he did. I wanted to ask if he was okay, if there was anything I could do, but the awkwardness of it all and the fear that he’d be upset by my intervention made me hold back. He looked at me as I held back and just shook his head, answering a question I hadn’t asked.
He came a couple more times to the gaming nights over the next month and then just stopped. We were all worried but nobody liked to intrude on him, especially if he was having a hard time. I left him a couple of falsely cheery voicemails asking him to get in touch and received only a curt SMS “Am ok” in return after a couple of days. And then the Daily Mail ran another front page article about Claritas. “Internet Drug Death Horror”. A photograph of a pretty young woman with a glass in her hand and the caption “SONIA IN HAPPIER DAYS – Parents blame Internet Death Pedlars”. The article was the usual stuff but upsetting. The woman had a history of depression and had recently perked up, attributing her improvement to Claritas which she’d purchased online. She’d recently started becoming withdrawn and isolated and had posted a final message on her Tumblr account saying “I don’t want to see any more.” And then she’d jumped, and fallen, and died. The Mail pointed out with glee that it had been warning about the dangers of the internet for years and that the government should certainly step in to restrict access to pornography and extreme beliefs and everything else that our grandparents would have objected to on the basis of being immoral or too foreign. It also quoted some of Sonia’s previous blog entries and her growing fascination with and then fear of what she described as “veils over the truth.” They were, she wrote, being stripped away one by one and the joy of understanding she wrote of in her earlier posts was being slowly replaced with a growing paranoia.
This reminded me too much of Eddie and his experiences. I called him there and then inventing some cheery excuse to use while the phone rang. It went through to his voicemail and I didn’t bother leaving a message. I took a bus and walked from the station toward his house. I was so worried for Eddie I barely noticed that here and there I was having to walk round people in the street, people standing still and not doing anything, just not doing anything. Other pedestrians were walking around them in the sleepwalking shopping trance common to people in cities and I suppose I was doing the same. Eddie was standing outside his house, just standing there in his garden. He had a packet in his hand a black packet with a cryptic yellow sign on it and no other markings.
I called his name and he didn’t respond. His face was tilted upward he was looking at the clouds, a typically grey skyscape for the time of year. He was just looking, but so intently it was unsettling. I could not remember seeing him pay that much attention to anything, not even in his college days. His lips were moving but he was making no sound. I touched his arm and he shook my hand off without breaking eye contact with the emptiness above him. Foolishly, pointlessly I looked around for anyone who could help, though what help I expected a stranger to be able to offer I didn’t know. There were passers-by, but I also saw others like Eddie, others standing statue-still and staring upwards. Six or seven on this street alone, just standing and looking upward with such perfect focus and attention while everyone around just moved on and noticed nothing outside their own heads.
I called Eddie’s name again more urgently, asked him if he was alright.
“Time for what?” I said, “Eddie, look at me.”
“We have all laid aside disguise but you,” he said and there was a tone in his voice, a hint that he was quoting something and not speaking for himself.
And then he spoke more clearly, four words only, loud and strong and clear, and those four words were spoken at once by every one of the other upward staring visionaries in the street, and in the city, and as I somehow knew all across the world, an answer given from some unknown other who spoke through the voices of tens of thousands.
“I wear no mask”
In answer to the prompt "Peculiar" at Studio30Plus and the image of lights in the sky at Light & Shade Challenge