God in the Machine

G

My brother spent the long summer of ’87 at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Recovering from the first episode of the condition that would come to define his life. And teaching himself how to program a computer.

For the first couple of weeks, fourteen-year-old David Carter shared a room with two other boys. The older prep-schooler, Tom, was a gibbering mess, suffering terrifying night tremors. Every night, he shook the metal frame of his bed, waking Dave up. The other boy, Jimmy was a polite level-headed boy from Fife who had a hidden cruel streak. In the darkness, they’d lie awake listening to Tom’s screams. Jimmy would whisper lies about my brother’s prospects until Dave sobbed.

I watched Dave get worse with each visit. My Mum would take me to see him between the hours of six and seven, almost every evening. Outside in the hallway, holding down her anger, I’d hear her plead with the nursing staff to get Dave moved. One night, she must’ve had enough of getting brushed aside, watching her boy wither in madness. Told to keep calm once too often, the girl from Pollok went into a blue rage. A blockheaded security guard escorted her out. She wasn’t allowed back until she signed papers promising to behave in future.

In the end, the hospital administrators moved my brother to his own room. After uncle Andrew, wearing his Evening News badge, started asking questions. He said it was a feature on mental health in Lothian. It was convincing enough to get their attention.

The new room was bigger than our flat. It had two upholstered chairs plus a circular side table, with a bowl the nurses kept stocked with fruit. Dave liked to look out the window, watching the pensioners sat on benches in the inner courtyard. When it wasn’t pouring with rain.

About the third week of my brother’s stay, around early July, my uncle bought him an Atari ST computer. It came with some old-school platformers and text-based adventures. It was pretty neat. He hooked up a small monochrome Grundig TV and Dave had something to do. Besides reading old 2000AD comics.

I guess what happened next was all my fault. I was around the library in Currie and I picked up a copy of “How to Program Your Own Adventure Games”. The floppy disk promised on the cover was missing. But it had code listings for typical explore the room and fight monsters games. The graphics were non-existent but I thought Dave bored enough to give it a go. At first, he didn’t seem interested. He thanked me and put it aside; went back to staring out the window.

“Give it a go, Dave.” I maintained my cheery disposition. Being normal around Dave was the mantra for our family that summer.

Not much response out of Dave for the rest of that day’s visit. Or the next. The Thursday following, Mum couldn’t come. Nan, a fiery-tongued widower came with me instead. She had little time for us boys and I hated visiting Dave with her.

There was a chill in the room when we arrived. Nan made herself a cup of tea and got on with her knitting, giving Dave no more than a glance.

“You’re looking well, Dave. Great, in fact. Mom’s sorry she can’t make it. She sends her love.

“I saw Sarah Green by the park today. Cycling past, saw her stuffing her face with a big bag of chips. Asked after you. You remember her?” I lowered my voice and leant in. “The leggy one who got the boobs last Easter?” Nothing from Dave. Nan coughed and gave me the evil eye.

The book I’d brought Dave was on the floor. At least he’d opened it. “You had a look? Any good? Did you have a go? I can’t understand a word of it myself but you were always the brainy one.”

The sky outside turned dour, thunder rattled the window frame. The downpour drew Dave’s attention but he managed to say, “I had a look.”

Encouraged, I pressed on. “You did? Fantastic! What did it do?” Dave didn’t respond but I waffled on until Nan got up, put on her waterproof jacket and signalled to go. “You keep going with that book,” I said as we left. “Tell me how you get on!” I didn’t know any better.

#

Two days later, Mum and I went to the hospital again. A friend of Dave’s cycled past on his twelve-gear mountain bike, shouting, “Whatcha Mrs C?”

Turning crimson with anger, Mum tried hard to ignore him. “How’s Dave, Mrs C?”

We walked the remaining hundred yards in stony silence. The boy on the bike slowed down to keep pace with us. We were crossing the road when a muddy Datsun ploughed through the Pelican crossing. It swerved, honking like a maniac and missing all three of us by an inch. Already in a grim mood, Mum went ape, throwing her handbag at the back of the car, screaming obscenities.

Then turning her fury on Dave’s unlucky friend, she gave him both barrels. “Do not. Ever. Talk to me like I am one of your snotty friends. Do you hear me? Next time, I will drag you by your ear home to your mother.”

Humming as I walked in to see Dave, I couldn’t wait to tell him all about it. For her part, Mum looked more relaxed than usual when we arrived. Not that she’ll admit it, but she enjoyed giving that boy a roasting. I’d bet a week’s paper-round money on that.

Mum had the first words with Dave, and I sat back waiting for my chance. He looked a lot better that day, sitting upright, nodding as Mum recounted life outside. As if it wasn’t the most boring things in all the world. Dave’s eyes lacked their usual look of a sad puppy staring into the abyss. He let Mum do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but grunted and shook his head. Better than I’d seen from him all month.

Dave had left the Atari plugged in, its power lights blinking. The TV still on, a flashing cursor on the screen. The book left open next to the computer. Short of a kick about out in the yard, this was the most promising sign of getting Dave back to his old self I’d seen. It choked me up.

“You alright, Dunc?”

I cleared my throat and double-checked. Yep, Dave had spoken, without any of us asking him something. Delighted, I spluttered and coughed some more. Mum poured me some water, giving my shoulder a squeeze as she handed the plastic cup over.

“Dave. I’m fine. I’m fine. What.. What’s your day been like?”

My face was cramping up with smiling. Dave pulled the cover off his bed, swinging out of bed. Putting on rubber slippers, he slid in beside the computer, typing two words:

Run adv4

The screen changed, the cursor prompt disappeared. Gobbledigook sped past for half a minute before it all went black. Then new type appeared:

You are in a dark room. You have a match, a rock and a piece of paper in your pocket.

Dave turned to me and said, “It’s not much. But it took all day.”

“No,” I got up and walked beside Dave. “It’s bloody magic! You did it! From the book, yeah?”

I glanced back at Mum, who was sniffing, a sheen misting her eyes.

“Yeah, it’s the fourth one,” Dave continued. Turning the pages of the book, he said, “Tic tac toe. Word guesser, a bit like hangman. A snake one. I skipped that. Couldn’t make it work. Then this. Thought you’d like it.”

“I do, I do! This is brilliant, Dave. Mind if I try?”

Dave stepped back and let me reach the Atari’s inbuilt keyboard. He said, “Type ‘look’. There’s only six commands plus directions. Forty rooms. No fighting yet. It’s all pretty basic. “

“Nah,” I said. Typing as instructed, I watched the screen repeat the description of the room. “It’s great,” I said. “You can always add more stuff later, right?”

“Sure,” he said and walked back to sit on the bed. The slippers stayed on and he didn’t get under the covers. That was progress.

“Crikey, no idea how I get past this bit though, Dave.”

“Try using your match'”

“Duh, of course.”

We spent the rest of the visit like that. The game wasn’t much but Dave had made it. And he was happy to talk about it.

#

The Saturday following, Dave came to spend the afternoon back at home. The doctors, impressed with his improvement, approved a home visit. Whatever the cause, I was glad to see my brother home. It was close family only, Mum said it was too soon for friends to come around. Of course, the Atari and the Grundig came with Dave.

Talking me through the latest version of his adventure game Dave was how I remembered him. Content to leave us to it, Mum and uncle Andrew went about making lunch. The new inventory system Dave had made was pretty damn cool. Now you could equip swords and drink potions as well.

Out of nowhere, Dave put a hand on mine over the keyboard. “I’ve found something,” he said.

Letting him pilot, I thought he meant something in the game. Watching him, manic energy as he played the keys, a knot formed in my stomach. The screen blurred as text rushed past.

“There,” he said, “can you see it?”

All I saw was blocky white shapes, interspersed with symbols like hieroglyphics. Sometimes a few coloured lines would whizz past the edges and disappear. Unsure what Dave wanted me to see, I didn’t say anything in case I discouraged him.

“You’re not seeing it,” Dave said. “Look again.”

Eyes intent on the random shapes, the motion of colours meaningless to me. Dave’s expectant eyes bored into me and I couldn’t look at him. “Um..,” I said.

I heard him sigh. “I thought,” he paused, “I hoped, you’d see it too.”

“What is it you see, Dave?” my uncle Andrew asked from behind us. He’d walked in without either of us noticing. Watching Dave, uncle only glanced at the screen.

Shaking his head, Dave withdrew into himself. He typed a single word and all the strangeness disappeared. A docile flashing prompt cursor returned.

There wasn’t much more said between us that afternoon.

After Mum took Dave back, uncle Andrew asked, “What did he say to you before I walked in?” My uncle had the look I’d seen when he was working on something important.

“Nothing,” I said. “He was happy showing me his latest on the computer. He’s getting good at it. Like in no time at all. Got it all worked out.”

My uncle drifted away into his own thoughts.

When Mum got back, we sat down to a supper of breaded cod and mashed potatoes. Mum said, “Duncan, I’m worried about David.”

I thought that was no surprise. “How so? Seems better than he has in a while, don’t you think?”

Uncle Andrew and Mum exchanged looks. Then Andrew spoke, “You didn’t notice anything unusual about him the past week?”

Baffled, I thought if anything, Dave seemed more normal. For Dave, anyway.

“We’re concerned, he’s picked up an unhealthy,” Mum continued, “obsession.”

“What obsession?”

“The computer’s not only a bit of fun for Dave,” Andrew said. “He’s seeing things in it that aren’t there.”

“You mean that stuff earlier?”

“Not only that,” Andrew said.

“The other afternoon when I visited,” Mum said, “the nursing staff told me they had seen him up at 4 am, talking to himself. Typing on the computer but they’d unplugged it earlier in the day. They were very concerned. And so am I now.”

“They want to take the computer off him,” Andrew said. “But they’re worried about an adverse reaction.”

“There was hope that a visit home would help,” Mum said.

It sounded like that hope was in vain. The way they looked at me suggested they were going to get me involved.

Uncle Andrew was the one to come out with it. “We’re hoping you might be able to get Dave to give up the computer. For a little bit.”

“I don’t know. He seems so much better with it. I mean Dave’s always talked to himself. Used different voices and told stories. At least now he’s not dead quiet. Like it was before. You know, before it happened.”

There was a sigh from Mum and she put her hand on uncle Andrew’s before he could respond. She always found it difficult to talk about what had happened and I regretted bringing it up. But I didn’t understand why the computer was a problem, I didn’t see how it could be bad for Dave. Having something he enjoyed doing inside that place. I didn’t want him to go backwards. The stone-faced blankness. He was more fun to be around now.

“Wouldn’t it be the same with anything Dave does?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not computers is it, that’s not the problem.”

“Let’s leave it, Andrew,” Mum said and then to me, “We can talk about it again later. We only want what is best for your brother.”

“I know, Mum. I do too.”

My uncle stood up and looked out the back through the kitchen window.

#

Dave came home again on Sunday, this time without the Atari. We had lunch together with Mrs Forrester, a plucky cheerful sort who went to the local church. She often visited my Mum. Whether it was the guest at the table or yesterday’s incident, Dave didn’t say much. The turkey breast and roast vegetables sat on his plate only getting moved around. He passed on the trifle. I remembered when we were younger, trifle was his favourite.

“You’re staring at that trifle like it broke your heart,” Mrs Forrester said to me.

Avoiding looking at Dave, I scooped whipped cream and mixed it in my bowl. As the afternoon wore on, I kept checking the clock. When Dave left to go back to the hospital, somewhat relieved, I went up to my room. Lying in bed, I felt rotten with guilt.

A few days later, I got up early. My paper round complete and I had tackled the list of chores Mum stuck on the fridge door. Keen to make the lunchtime visitors hour, I determined to be a better brother for Dave’s sake. It was harder when he was home, remembering him as he used to be.

The nurse on duty was a broad-shouldered battle-axe with all the personal warmth of a glacier. She stopped me at the door, “Family only,”

“I’m his brother!”

“Only his mother and uncle listed on my sheet.”

I showed her my junior bus pass, pointing at the family name. She folded her arms. Her obtuseness made me despair. I considered ramming through but didn’t fancy my chances against her. A younger nurse who’d seen me around in the evenings went by and I grabbed her by the arm.

“Excuse me, miss. I want to see my brother. But she,” I said, pointing at the blonde beast, “won’t let me past!”

“Anelka, let the poor lad through. He’s the brother.”

I stuck my tongue out and walked in, ready to spin a yarn about how I’d got past that golem. Dave was sat in front of the TV, staring at the fuzzy noise patterns it showed when there was no signal.

“Dave?”

He didn’t say anything, staring at the static. The Atari wasn’t there but he moved his hands through the air like he was working an invisible typewriter.

“Dave, you alright?”

Cautious, I approached him. I raised my hands up like in the movies when there’s a gun pointed at someone. He ignored me. I placed my hand on his shoulder and shook him about.

“Dave, the computer’s gone.”

His hands still outstretched, tapped into nothingness. “I don’t need it anymore.”

With bloodshot eyes, Dave looked up and smiled. I shivered. Only a few specks of white floated around by his dilated pupils. Nostrils sore red, lips covered in flaky white cracks. Up close, he smelled like he had shat himself. Holding his shoulder, I fought back a gag reflex. I gasped at the open door, “Hey, somebody. Come in here. We need some help!”

I wasn’t sure anybody had heard me. “Dave, you’re not right. This isn’t right. You’re staring at nothing. When did you last sleep?”

“I don’t need to sleep, Dunc. I’ve seen it. It was perfect. Clear. It’s the electrons, you see? That’s how. That’s how he talks to you. At first, I thought I needed the program. I thought I needed to make him understand. Somehow. But he understands without all that. He always understood, Dunc. Even when Dad gave up, he understood. He never went away. Always listening. Waiting for us. The book. He put the book there for you to find. But they’ve taken it! The enemy has taken it. Putting walls between us and him. We can put things right though, Dunc. Say sorry for Dad. For everybody, everywhere. I tried with the code. Tried to make it so he understood. But he didn’t need all that. He knew already.”

Dave took a gulp of air and I fell into a chair. He looked so sincere, I held his hand and waited for help.

“The things Dad said about him, Dunc. They were terrible. Horrible lies. I don’t want to be like Dad. I want to be clean. I want to be normal. I want to see him again. Can you hear him, Dunc? Can you see him?”

The only sight the shifting senseless pattern, the only noise static. Two male staff arrived and strapped Dave to his bed. The soiled jammies removed. Anelka came and held me, her firm grip some comfort as she pulled me out of the room. I watched Dave as they dragged me, watched him pointing at the TV. They closed the door but I could hear his whelps, repeating over and over, “Do you hear him? Can you see him?”

#

After that Monday afternoon, I was not allowed to visit for two weeks. His condition deteriorated and they put him on stronger meds. Even tried ECT. Mum visited but wouldn’t talk about it. “David is getting the help he needs,” she said when asked. I wasn’t so sure.

When I finally could visit, I was nervous but eager. Mum had warned me not to expect much from Dave. There was a flash storm that mid-August day. Drenched, I must’ve looked like a drowned rat. The nursing staff giggled as I went passed.

“Don’t be shy, go in,” Anelka told me as I hovered at the door handle to Dave’s room. Relieved to see him sat on the bed, looking out the window, I felt a great weight lift.

“Lovely day for a swim,” I said, mopping my wet hair across my forehead. Dave looked my way as I closed the door. I sat close to him, pulling out a magazine. “New Dredd storyline.”

Flicking through, he lingered on the back-page classifieds. There was an ad for an Amstrad ZX Spectrum, I noticed. He closed the covers of the magazine and passed it back. Quiet as mice, we sat. Dave stared out the window.

“I can’t hear him anymore,” Dave said.

The fluorescent lights crackled and the humid room closed in around us.

“I can’t hear God, anymore, Dunc.”

I took my brother’s hand and heard him sniff. “Mrs Forrester, says you can talk to God anytime you want. Praying. Is that what you were doing, Dave? Praying?”

Giving it some thought, he said, “I didn’t ask him anything. I didn’t tell him anything. He spoke to me. Told me things. And now I can’t hear him.”

Our hands gripped tighter together. “I don’t think he goes away,” I said.

The thick lines and purple blotches on Dave’s face made him look like someone had worked him over with a wrench. “Feels like he’s dead,” he said. “When we were younger, I knew he was right there. Then I forgot. I was so happy, Dunc, to have him back. Now, he’s gone again. I’m all alone again.”

“You’re not alone!” I shouted. “I miss Dad too, I miss you, Dave, I miss Mum, like she was before. I want you to come home.” I started crying. “You can come home, Dave. All anyone wants is for you to be alright. Try to be alright, yeah? Please, for me?”

My brother’s face on that August day remains vivid in my mind. He got out of that hospital bed and wrapped his arms around me. When I needed him most, he gave me a weak but reassuring hug. Wiping my tears and snot with his gown, he said, “Alright, Dunc. Alright. I’ll try.”

It had been a long time since we had held each other and we didn’t let go for some time. We read that comic together. And laughed. Real belly-ache laughter. We talked about school and our friends; the new term starting in a couple of weeks. Leaving the hospital that day, I felt hopeful.

On the way home, I wondered how we’d got to where we were. Our Dad dying was part of it, I was sure. But I also remembered other things even before that. I remembered we stopped going to church as a family. Dad had put a stop to that. Mum and Dad had fought about it. I remembered Dad sitting us down, telling Dave and me there was no God, no heaven, nothing but this life. Dave didn’t stop crying and I cried with him, for him. And then, less than a month later, Dad was dead. Too young to understand, I let Dave carry that weight for both of us.

The last two weeks of the summer break, Mum pushed the doctors hard and they agreed that Dave had improved. They gave him some scripts for all the drugs he had to take and let him out in time for the new school year. Dave didn’t have another episode that year or the next. We started going back to church, even uncle Andrew sometimes. Mrs Forrester picked us all up in her beige Cortina, ten thirty on the dot every Sunday morning. I don’t know whether Dave could hear God then or ever again. The doctors, they said it’s all in the genes, in the brain chemistry. Whatever it was and whatever brought it on for Dave, it was waiting to come out. I’ve been wondering if it’s in me too. There’s no way to know. I was glad to have my brother back after that summer. I told him as much.

By S. P. Razavi
Essays and Stories by S. P. Razavi

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