White-Outby James Vance Vance Marshall
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`The past is another country'
The sealed envelope was brought to my consulting rooms in the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, by special messenger. I had no premonition as I opened it that this would be my introduction to one of the most difficult cases I ever had to handle. Inside the envelope were medical records and a memo from a colleague at the Admiralty. The memo read:
Admiralty, S.W. 1
2nd April, 1944
We have a case to refer to you as a matter of urgency. Lt James Lockwood, RNVR, is the sole survivor from a Naval detachment recently deployed in the Antarctic. His survival was little short of a miracle, and he is still suffering considerable physical disability as a result of his privations. He also appears to be suffering from amnesia.
His duties in the Antarctic were classified `Most Secret', and were of considerable, repeat considerable, importance. Their Lordships are therefore anxious to ascertain:
(i) Whether his amnesia is genuine.
(ii) Whether he is likely to recover from it and be able to recall all that took place during his time on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Your judgement on these points would be much appreciated. Lt Lockwood's medical records and basic information about his assignment are enclosed. May I remind you that the latter is classified `Most Secret'.
(Surgeon Commander J.S. Sinclair, RN.)
I was intrigued. I was too busy that day during working hours togive the matter much thought; but after my last consultation I stayed on in my rooms to have a look at Lockwood's medical records and the file on his assignmentI would have preferred to take them home and read them at leisure, but classified information was not allowed out of the hospital. So I told the duty sickbay attendant I was working late, asked him to bring me a cup of the canteen's notorious ersatz coffee, switched on my reading lamp, and settled down to find out why this Lt Lockwood and his `Most Secret' duties merited a special messenger and so much fuss.
It turned out to be quite a story.
Young Lockwood had been part of a ten-man Naval detachment who had been landed on the Antarctic Peninsula in January, 1942. Their orders had been to set up a base from which they could transmit daily weather reports and forecasts; these, it was believed, would facilitate operations (and in particular the passage of convoys) in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, after they had been operating successfully for about a year a German U-boat must have picked up their transmissions, homed in on their base-camp and totally destroyed it. There were three survivors: the commanding officer who was so seriously injured he died shortly afterwards, and Lt Lockwood and Petty Officer Ramsden, both of whom had been out of camp on a sledging trip at the time of the attack. Ramsden also subsequently died, leaving young Lockwood alone, with winter approaching, virtually no food, and no way of reaching or communicating with the outside world. He was the only living human being on an entire continent and it seemed impossible for him to survive. However, he apparently built himself a shelter, and somehow and against all the odds managed to live through the terrible Antarctic winter. Eventually, when the ice melted in the spring and a ship was able to get through to him, he was rescued. Not surprisingly, his experiences had left him physically and mentally shattered. He seemed also to have partially lost his memory; for according to his medical records he could recall little of what happened during his winter ordeal, and virtually nothing of what happened prior to the destruction of the detachment's base-camp.
There were things about this that I found a bit puzzling: not least why the Admiralty should regard it as so urgent. However, I told myself to put it out of my mind until Lockwood himself arrived at the hospital. This turned out to be sooner than I anticipated. For first thing next morning I got a phone call to say that my afternoon consultations had been cancelled, and the young lieutenant was to see me at 2 p.m.
* * *
He was a tall man: six foot exactly according to his records, but looking more because he was so pitiably thin. I could see that he had probably been good-looking once, and would, in time, probably be good-looking again; but right now he was a physical disaster. He moved stiffly, with a limp; his muscles had wasted away; his teeth were loose, his skin was blotched and discoloured by the aftermath of scurvy; his hair was snow-white, and he had the haunted eyes of a man who has seen things he would prefer to forget. My instinct warned me he was not likely to be an easy patient. We shook hands.
`Please take a seat, Lt Lockwood,' I said, adding, as soon as he had got settled, `now what have you been up to, in the Antarctic?'
`I'm afraid,' he said, `I can't remember.'
`But you can surely remember something! The cold? The ice? Your friends? The hut you lived in?'
He shook his head. `Sorry.'
I got the impression he wasn't telling me the truth: or at least not the whole truth. `I do understand,' I said gently, `that opening old wounds must be painful for you. I really do regret that. But believe me, in the long run it helps.'
`But I don't,' he said, `want help.'
And that was the leitmotiv of our consultation. Lockwood was perfectly coherent, unfailingly polite and totally adamant. Psychiatric treatment was the Admiralty's idea, not his. All he wanted was to be left alone. To forget.
I was surprised. Amnesia isn't the easiest of afflictions to live with. Most people who suffer from it find it disquieting to have blank moments in their lives that they can't account for. They want to be cured. So why wasn't this Lt Lockwood conforming to type? Could it be, I asked myself, that he had something to hide? I decided, for the moment, to steer clear of the Antarctic, which he obviously didn't want to talk about, and discover something of his background.
I gathered he was the only child of middle-class parents. His father, it seemed, was a draughtsman, working for a firm of consulting engineers in the city: too old to be called up, but doing his bit as an air raid warden. His mother, before her marriage, had been a nurse, and was now helping out at a local hospital. Their marriage had been a happy one, and young Lockwood appeared to have had a perfectly normal home-life in the south London suburb of Norwood, and a perfectly normal school-life, first at Dulwich College Preparatory School then at the College itself. He appeared to have kept reasonably well and fit, and been reasonably successful academically, reasonably good at games and reasonably happy: in fact he came across as almost the archetypal young Mr Normal. It is true that, like a lot of only children who went to a public school, he had had little contact during his teens with the opposite sex; but this lack appeared to have been to some extent redressed when he left home and joined the Navy. On gaining his commission, he was sent to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich for a three-month course in meteorology, at the end of which he was appointed junior met officer to the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. While serving with Eagle in the Mediterranean, he learned that the Admiralty were wanting met officers for `most secret duties in the far south'. He volunteered. And was accepted.
This didn't sound to me like the sort of childhood and adolescence in which a psychiatrist might expect to unearth skeletons.
So long as I confined myself to asking Lockwood about his early life, he answered my questions spontaneously and, I felt sure, honestly. But as soon as I began to question him about what had happened in the Antarctic, his attitude changed. He shut up like a clam. `I don't know,' he kept on saying, or `I can't remember'; and when he did vouchsafe an answer, it was with guarded reluctance, as though he was fearful of digging a pit for himself to fall into. I sensed a mystery. And a problem. And, greatly to my annoyance, I sensed something else: that this was going to be one of those rare cases in which I became personally involved.
For more than 30 years, first in the backstreets of Preston, then in the fashionable precincts of Harley Street, people had been coming to me with problems they couldn't cope with on their own; I did my best to help them when they couldn't help themselves. Most of the time I was able to distance myself from my patients. I had to. I needed to preserve a clinical detachment to prevent myself being emotionally drained, and left as weak and vulnerable as those I was trying to counsel. But every now and then I found myself dealing with a case that tugged at my heartstrings. And it was happening now. I looked at Lockwood's emaciated body and haunted eyes; I listened to his careful and evasive answers; and both my instinct and my professional judgement cried out that something was wrong. I longed to help him: perhaps, perversely, all the more because he apparently didn't want to be helped.
So all that April afternoon I went on questioning, probing, prompting, cajoling. And eventuallythough it was like squeezing blood from a stoneI got him to admit there were one or two isolated incidents that he could remember.
What helped me in this were the notes of his debriefing, which had taken place soon after his rescue. These had been attached to his medical records, and I now laid them out in front of me on my desk, so that he could see I was referring to them. `It says here,' I told him, `that in spite of all the terrible things you went through, you fell in love with Antarctica. Is that right?'
For a long time he was silent; then he said simply, `Yes.'
`So how did this love affair begin?'
He said that he couldn't remember.
`Come off it!' I chided him. `Lovers always know what got them going!'
There was an even longer silence, and I formed the impression that Lt Lockwood was weighing up the pros and cons of telling me the truth.
`Was it,' I prompted, `a case of love at first sight?'
I could see he was in a dilemma. He wasn't by nature secretive and evasive; but for reasons known only to himself he felt that he had to be secretive and evasive about what had happened on the Antarctic Peninsula. And he felt guilty about this. It would come almost as a relief to him if we could find some aspect of his time there that he felt able to talk about.
`Please,' I said. `What possible harm can come of your telling me how you feel about the Antarctic?'
`I can't see the point of all this,' he said at last. `But OK, I'll tell you. It was a case of love at first sight.' He shut his eyes; and it was as though a dam had been broken, and the words so long held back came pouring out in a tumultuous flood.... `I'll never forget that first morning. You see, ever since we left Port Stanley we'd had nothing but rain and sleet and fog and great seas and a wind so strong we'd had to lean into it to stay upright. But when I woke that morning the ship was so still and quiet I thought something must be wrong. I went on deck. And it was like ... well, like finding myself on another planet. There was no cloud. No wind. Hardly a ripple on the sea. And Scoresby was heading down a narrow channel. It was,' he hesitated, `like a street hemmed in by skyscrapers, except the skyscrapers on one side were icebergs and on the other side mountains. The icebergs were huge. I reckon some were a couple of miles long and five or six hundred feet high. Most were flat-topped and slab-sided. But every now and then one would be sculpted into amazing shapes: like a castle, all keeps and battlements and turrets. Some had caves hollowed out along the waterline, with the sea rushing in and out, all emerald-green and sapphire-blue. And the sun was so hot, I remember, it was melting the ice, and great waterfalls were streaming down the sides of the bergs. Every now and then one of them would calve, and thousands of tons of ice would come crashing into the sea. The mountains were pretty amazing too. Covered with snow of course, and thousands of feet high. They stretched away to the north and south as far as we could seeand the air was so clear that morning I reckon we could see a good hundred miles. But that was only half of it.' He paused. `What really amazed me was the wildlife. You see, when the weather had been bad we hadn't seen a living thing. In fact it didn't seem possible there were living things in such a terrible environment. But now the weather had cleared, there was life everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of seabirdscormorants, gulls, petrels and ternswheeling about the cliffs. Tens of thousands of penguins nesting along the shore and leaping on and off the ice. And the water was alive: with krill, fish, seals. There was even the odd pair of whales. And everything,' again he hesitated, `was clean and new and fresh. Sort of primordial. As though the world had just been born.'
If only, I thought, I could get him to talk like this about his other experiences! I cast round for another aspect of Antarctica that he might be happy to tell me about. `That must have been quite something,' I said. `Do you suppose the others felt the same as you? About the Antarctic?'
`I don't know.'
`But a wonderful experience like that ... You must have talked about it? With your friends?'
He said he couldn't remember.
I decided to try a shot in the dark. I'd noticed during my earlier questioning that he seemed to have a particularly high regard for his commanding officer, a Lt Cdr John Ede. `What about the CO?' I asked. `Do you think he fell in love with Antarctica too?'
His eyes went suddenly frightened. His hands, I noticed, had started to tremble.
I glanced again at the notes on his debriefing. `You got on well with John Ede, didn't you?' I asked him.
It seemed a harmless question. But its effect was catastrophic.
Lockwood shivered. The first shiver was only a little one; but it was followed in rapid succession by another and another and another, each more violent than the one before. The shivering turned to shuddering. I could see he was trying desperately to control himself; but it was a losing battle. And suddenly he started to cry. He cried without hysteria, without self-pity and without embarrassment, the tears cascading out of him in a seemingly endless flood.
I was unnerved. I am no stranger to human suffering, and in the last couple of years I thought I had become inured to dealing with the casualties of war; for I had treated men who would never walk again, men who would never see again, and men who would never make love again. But not in 30 years of psychiatric practice had I met anything quite like this, the more frightening for being so totally unexpected.
`I'm sorry,' I said, aware of how inadequate my words must sound to him. `Truly, I didn't mean to distress you.'
He managed, at last and with obvious difficulty, to bring himself under control. `It's me who ought to apologise,' he said, `you'd better send for a bucket and mop!'
I chose my words carefully: `I want you to know,' I said, `I'm only asking you all these questions because in the long run I believe it will help you.'
He stared at me, his eyes more pleading than angry. `But I've told you. I don't want help.'
`I've been in this business of counselling,' I said slowly, `for a very long time. And it's my experience that alwaysalways and without exceptionthings are best brought into the open. The past isn't something you can bury. And forget.'
He winced, as though I had kicked him in the stomach. He gripped the top of my desk so tightly his knuckles were white. `The past is another country,' he said. `I don't live there any more. I don't want to remember it. And I won't remember it.'
And that was the end of our first consultation.
* * *
When he had gone I lit a cigarette and sat down to think things over. It seemed to me there was a conflict of interests here. The Admiralty wanted Lockwood to recall what had happened in the Antarctic. He wanted to forget. I decided that a chat with Jim Sinclair might clear the air.
It was late that evening by the time I got through to him, and I was relieved to find him still at his desk.
`I'm a bit worried,' I told him, `about that case you referred to me.'
`What are you worried about?'
`I can't help wondering,' I said, `why he was referred to me at all. He says he doesn't want psychiatric counselling. Don't you think we ought to respect his wishes?'
There was a moment of silence, and I got the impression that Commander Sinclair was not pleased with me. `This is an important case,' he said eventually. `We have a high regard for your judgement. And we'd like to know what you make of young Lockwood.'
`To be honest,' I said, `I'm not sure what to make of him. But he's obviously been through hell, and he wants to forget it. That strikes me as fair enough. Do we need to take things further?'
`The Admiralty think we need to.'
I realised this was going to be one of those cases when the Admiralty and I were on different wavelengths: they attuned to the needs of the war and the maintenance of Naval discipline, I to the needs of my patient and his mental well-being. In such a conflict of interests a career commander RN at the Admiralty was not likely to be a sympathetic ally. Nonetheless I stayed chatting for quite a while to Jim Sinclair, partly because I liked him and partly because I hoped he might put me in the picture about the background to young Lockwood's activities in the Antarctic. This latter hope was not fulfilled. As soon as I tried to question him about John Ede and his ill-fated team of meteorologists, he warned me off.
`Sorry, Hugh. This is a No Go Area.'
`You'd better take my word for it. There's nobody at the Admiralty who'll say a word about the Ede fiasco.'
`Why all the secrecy?' I asked him. `I mean, they were only transmitting weather forecasts, weren't they?'
`Believe me, sir. The subject is taboo. Verboten.'
As soon as he started calling me `sir' I knew I'd get nothing further out of him. We parted amicably enough; though I'm sure he felt I was being unduly inquisitive, and I certainly felt he was being unduly secretive. His parting shot made me think. `You'll let us have your report right away, won't you, sir? We'd never have referred Lockwood to you in the first place if the matter hadn't been urgent.'
I told him I'd do my best.
I wasn't too happy about what I was being asked to do. However, there was a war on; I was in the king's uniform, and my superiors at the Admiralty had every right to expect me to carry out their orders. I arranged another consultation with Lt Lockwood for the following afternoon.
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