Words Fail

Here's one of my trunk stories. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for this one. I guess it's appropriate for a blog about writers. (Note, the story is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives licence - see note at the end)

Words Fail
by Mike Wood

“So, tell me, when did this… condition, first manifest itself?”
            Doctor Roberts sat back and peered at Malcolm over the top of his bifocals.
“Yesterday afternoon,” said Malcolm. “I’d been marking exam papers all morning and I needed a break, so I walked into town to buy a paper.”
Malcolm unfolded his arms and the doctor could see that his hands were shaking. “It was raining. I went into W H Smiths and just wandered over to the magazines. I picked a few up, you know, just to kill time until the rain passed. I started reading… oh, I don’t know, might have been National Geographic or something. After just a few lines I realised that I wasn’t reading the words any more. I was seeing the words - the letters - but they just didn’t seem to mean anything to me. It was like they’d become jumbled up… scrambled.”
“Has anything like this happened to you before?”
“No. No, of course not. I couldn’t understand. I didn’t panic at first - I thought maybe I’d picked up a foreign language edition or something - only deep down I knew that wasn’t right, I knew that even in another language the words would have, I don’t know, form maybe – some kind of consistency.”
“Well, it was nothing like that. They seemed like, random letters… gobbledygook. Only they weren’t even letters. I didn’t recognise any of them. I picked up another magazine, only this time I went for a TV listings mag - one of the cheap ones with soap stars on the front. I thought, hey, there’s not going to be a Bulgarian language version of that one here in the High Street, you know?
“But I couldn’t read it. Not a word.” Malcolm’s voice was getting edgy again. There were the beginnings of hysteria creeping into his manner. His fists were clenching and unclenching, he has licking his lips as they constantly dried out. Doctor Roberts felt the need to offer some reassurance, although he felt by no means comfortable with what he was hearing.
“Have you been working hard lately? You say you’ve been marking exam papers – have you been over-doing it perhaps?”
“I’ve been working hard, for sure. But nothing unusual. Nothing that you’d call excessive.”
I believe that what you are experiencing is a neurological condition called aphasia. Now, I don’t want you to worry, there are many possible causes and it may not be lasting. It could have been brought about by stress or overwork, but at the same time I can’t rule out the possibility of other clinical causes. Neurogenic communication disorders like this can be caused by strokes amongst other things. Yes, it’s conceivable, Mr Jones, that you’ve suffered a mild stroke. It’s unusual for a man of your age, twenty-three, but I’m going to refer you to a colleague at the hospital.”
As Dr Roberts went through the mantra of referral he watched the familiar clashing of emotions, of shock and relief, as they fought for dominance in Malcolm Jones’ features. Shock at having such a stark prognosis laid out for him; relief that he was talking to someone who knew – someone who was in control of a familiar situation.
But Dr. David Roberts was a long way from feeling in control. His calm demeanour was an act. As soon as Malcolm left his surgery, looking shaken, yes, but certainly a little happier, David closed the door and asked his receptionist to hold the next patient. He dropped into his chair, reclining it to its fullest extent. He heaved a long and shuddering sigh and ran his fingers through his thinning grey hair.
Malcolm Jones had been the third inexplicable aphasia case that morning. Two would have been a remarkable coincidence, three was cause for alarm.
 He picked up the phone.
“Andrea, morning, it’s Dave, how are you today?”
A pause.  Then, “Dave, what can I do for you?”
David had known Andrea McCloud since medical school. They’d been friends for years. She had a small practice about ten miles away.
“Andrea, I’ve had three strange cases this morning, three alarmingly similar cases, and quite frankly, I’m baffled. Patients are coming in with sudden onset of aphasia; identical symptoms. They’ve lost the ability, totally, to read.”
There was silence from the other end of the phone.
“Dave, yes, I’m still here. Three you say?” her voice sounded strange, almost distant.
“Yes, all within the last two hours. It’s creepy.”
“Hmm.” Another long silence. “David, I’ve had two cases here.” She said this without emotion. She let it hang in the air for a moment. “The first was my final slot yesterday evening.” Andrea’s voice was flat, unemotional. She was calling him David, not Dave. “David, the second… it’s me. I… I started having difficulty with the patients’ records on my PC. When I came to key-in prescription details I couldn’t recognise the characters on the keyboard. I closed the surgery thirty minutes ago. I’ve been sitting here trying to build up the nerve to call you… no, that’s not quite true. I tried to call you earlier, but… Dave, I couldn’t find your number in my address book. I couldn’t find anything in there, it’s just, it’s rubbish, it’s meaningless scrawl. I’m scared, Dave.”
David Roberts, the doctor whose calm and reassuring bedside manner was known and admired throughout the district, uttered an obscenity. Silence roared back at him through the earpiece of the phone. David moved the phone to his other ear, changing hands. The phone had become wet with perspiration.
“Hold on Andrea,” he said at last, fighting to keep a note of calm in his voice. “I’m coming over. I’ll cancel the rest of my patients this morning.”
“Thanks, Dave. Thank you. You’re a good friend.”
David left his office and gave instructions to Joan, his receptionist, to cancel the remainder of his patients that morning. “Tell them an emergency’s cropped up,” he said.
“What is it, doctor? What’s happened.” Joan asked.
“An emergency, Joan. It’s a bloody emergency.”

David climbed into his BMW and eased the car out of the narrow car park and onto the road. It was usually busy, but today the traffic was quite light. The radio was on and the eleven o’clock news was just starting. The headlines were all about the latest political indiscretions and backstabbing. David barely listened, it was just background noise; his mind was too preoccupied. But then his ears pricked up part way through a short item at the tail end of the news bulletin; a breaking-news report about a large number people in the capital that were said to be experiencing reading difficulties. David turned up the volume control but the news item was brief and light on detail, and the news soon segued smoothly into the sport… “and the England manager will today announce the squad for the forthcoming friendly against Peru. It’s widely believed that… erm… the team will… er…” there was an audible shuffling of papers, a nervous cough. “I’m sorry, let me try that again. I, erm. I’m having a little difficulty here. I… I think maybe I have the wrong glasses. I’ll pass you back to the studio…”
David knew. He knew that a change of glasses would be no help to the unfortunate sports correspondent. He knew that something serious was happening. How widespread was this? National? Global? Would the aphasia be permanent? David pulled the car over to the side of the road. He needed to think. He needed to stop shaking and he needed not to crash the car. He was a doctor. He should be on top of this. What was the procedure here? What should he do? Whatever this thing was it was fast. The evidence pointed to some kind of virus, and in a single day it had moved from obscurity to pandemic. Simultaneous cases here in Lancashire and London, within a day - Christ, the speed of this thing was phenomenal.
David reached out his mobile. He should ring the Strategic Health Authority. He began paging through the directory in his phone: Alan Birch: Andrea McCloud: Barry Williams: Colid dfghs: Dghew Hjfsa… He stared at the display. His hands, already shaking, began to tremble so much he lost his grip on the phone and it fell into the footwell of the car. On the other side of the road there was a bus shelter with a large advertisement in the end panel. It seemed to be for a travel agent of some sort but David could not read the writing. He covered his face with his hands and took several deep breaths. He must take a few moments to regain control of himself before continuing. What good would he be to Andrea now?
A terrifying image came to David’s head of a world where reading had become a forgotten skill. The implications were appalling. Without reading how might knowledge be acquired? How could knowledge and information be stored, or passed from one generation to the next? TV and radio would cease to function, as would schools and colleges. Businesses would fail. Governments could not function. Basic services – health, transport, power…The inevitable downward spiral was dizzying. If this… virus, if that really was the nature of this thing… if this virus is as virulent as at appeared to be, then how could it be stopped? How could research be progressed and communicated? David realised that he was staring ah somethjdb fhat was nkffn lv’vsd vvrlgkl. 48n’ba zfbvl234t9 n ag  aagna  v  goin asdv.? Ie iafnbe sgn KJ\ FFffde…


ChrisB said…
Writers block seems a bit like this sometimes. Scary . I like this alot. It was quite inspi8952

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