MICHAEL KELLY (1818-1881); practitioner in the arts of ‘innovative medicine’.
I have been trying to write to you for some little while now, but every time I do it comes out wrong. But I feel that time is of the essence, I fear it may already be too late, and so however this letter turns out, I will send it – I shall bite the bullet, let the words fall where they will. And even now I can tell, with all this preamble, that I am trying to put off getting to the heart of the matter, and I must push on. I must concentrate, although concentration is such a hard thing for me nowadays, and I had not realised what a fine thing presence of mine can be until I squandered it forever.
I urge you to read on. I do not presume to offer advice. Not advice, not as such. But I fear you may be in great danger. And you will understand that at times I truly care not that you are in danger, at times I would be happy to see all manner of dreadful fates befall you, but I think and believe I am still a good Christian woman. In spite of all I have done. In spite of all I have become.
And still I labour the point…! But it is hard to say the words. I know that if I am right, I am the last person you will want to hear from. That you must despise me utterly. And if I am wrong, well then, I insult you in a shameful way that cannot be forgiven. But I am not wrong, I am not wrong. And I say now:
I believe that you are in love with my husband. Moreover, I believe he is in love with you. And moreover still, I believe you may have already enjoyed together certain carnal pleasures. I do not know how far these carnal pleasures may have gone, but I do know what form they will take, and the thought fills me with nausea. For my sake, of course, but also, and I hope you can trust me, so very much for yours.
You must not see him again. You must break it off. When you have read this letter, I advise you immediately to pack your things. I advise you to tell your husband, if you have one, that you want to leave this town. Insist on it if you must. Because it is the only way I can be sure you will put Michael behind you. And then burn this letter, so it will never fall into the wrong hands, and cause such scandal to your reputation (and to mine, I suppose, but what of that, really, what of that now?). Keep my words in your heart, but burn the letter regardless.
I do not judge you. I would say, there but for the grace of God go I. But I have gone, I have been and wallowed in it, and I suspect God had really very little to do with it.
My husband is a sweet and even-tempered man and I do not think he would ever lay a finger upon me, but I fear the consequences of his finding this, and what actions he might be obliged to take against us both. Because I suspect he may be the dev
I apologise for the interruption. Sometimes I lose control of myself quite. Sometimes I go quite numb, and then I might stare out as if dead, or in a trance. Michael gives me smelling salts, but they do not always bring me round. I do not know for sure how I behave when this mood sets upon me, I know I think very little at such times. There is a kind of peace to it, a rather melancholy peace but a peace nonetheless, and it takes me more and more frequently, so Michael says. Michael may be lying. But I do not think so. For all that he is a deceitful man (as you must already know so well) I do not think he lies easily.
My fear, of course, was that when the mood took me, I was in mid-sentence writing to you. And that my letter would be discovered by Michael – really how could it not have been, as he dosed me from his stock of ammonium carbonate to revive me? When I came to I couldn’t see the letter anywhere, and I feared that he must have taken it and read it, and after destroyed it – and the repercussions he would visit on you would be most terrible. That he would have to step up his game. That in trying to warn you of danger, I had put you at still greater risk. It is a curious power I feel I have over you now. But I found the letter. I found it in my pocket, neatly folded. I can only think that as the mood descended I still had the presence of mind to protect myself and to protect you.
It is possible, of course, and do not think I have not considered it, that Michael found the letter, read it, then folded it and put it in my pocket. But I am still here. And yes, you are still here. I have seen you arrive at my husband’s surgery this very morning. I have suffered the look of ironic amusement you flashed at me as you made your appointment. And I have seen you emerge again from private consultation, from behind the door I am no longer allowed to open, and you have been all smiles, still quite yourself.
I do not feel such urgency any longer. I deduce my mood lasted three days. I assume from the number of appointments you have made to see my husband, and so blatantly too, that I am too late, that you are already lost.
Still, I will write.
I fell in love with Michael Kelly on the 6th of April, 1844. I didn’t sentimentalise the date, not even then. But all appointments are recorded within a ledger, and I am now in charge of the ledger, and I can turn back a few pages and see the record of my first visit, so.
I confess, I have a fear of dentistry. I do not, I should add, have a fear of pain. I do not enjoy pain, but I understand that in my life there will be a certain amount of it, and it is an uncomfortable thing but not a frightening thing, and if it is not to be feared it can be withstood. The birth of my daughter Eloise was especially difficult, and I remember there was a lot of blood, and I was led to believe afterwards there was some doubt whether we could both survive the process, the child and I: and yet we did, the two of us. And for all the pain I thought there was some objective to it all, if I could just clamp my jaws tight and ride through it, I would gain a little girl. With dentistry, with the pain there, what at the end of the day is there to be gained? A little chunk of enamel, a little white stone. What would I want with that?
When I was a little girl I went to the dentist, and he extracted a tooth. It was probably the work of seconds, and I’m sure he was the best that could be bought – my father would not have stinted in such matters – but it seems in my memory to have lasted a hellishly long time, and I can see that dentist as a giant, a big hulking brute. How I cried. How I tried to fight him off, and my arms had to be pinned behind me. On the way home, after the deed was done, and the agony (just about) endured, (and I was still crying, the pain hadn’t yet subsided, for all that there was this shiny tooth in my hand where it could apparently hurt me no more) my parents told me that they were ashamed of me. That I should wipe my eyes, and never act in such a way again. And I learned two things from that. I made two vows. That I should never cry. (And I have done my best to keep that vow, I didn’t shed a tear when my father died, nor when my mother died either.) And that I should never again visit a dentist.
When baby Eloise was teething I would hold her close and try to will the pain away – but I wouldn’t think of my own teeth, and how sometimes the gums would bleed, and how so often (and for so long too) there would be a dull ache when I woke in the morning (John would sometimes say I grind my teeth, I think that’s what did it), and how I had taken to eating cautiously on only one side of the mouth – this particular side, naturally, varying over time dependent on which side was the most sensitive (I sometimes swapped the side several times a day, it was hard to ascertain which was the most painful, I’d pick one then change my mind, pick the other, and between meals I might forget which side I’d finally chosen, and the rigmarole would start all over again, it could be quite irritating).
But there came a time when I could ignore the pain no longer. When I would pace the house all night, waiting for dawn, because it seemed that the pain was so much worse in the dark, it seemed merely distressing and gruelling and unbearable by day, but in the small hours when everyone was abed it turned into a demon, it preyed on my mind, it blotted out all other thought. And John insisted I go to the dentist. John was a man who rarely insisted on anything, so when he did I knew it was time to listen. He told me I wasn’t running the house efficiently for lack of sleep. That I was snapping at Eloise and at her nanny. That moreover he loved me, and could hardly bear to see me in such discomfort. He told me he would come to the dentist with me if I wanted, he would take the day off from the bank – and I said there was no need. He told me that he wished he could take my pain himself, so I wouldn’t have to feel it. And I rather think he would have done so.
I should explain. John is my first husband, some would say my true husband. But I don’t see how that can be now. I don’t see how that is possible. And Michael and I may have never walked up the aisle together (indeed, we have never together been to church!), but he is my husband, he is my husband. Just as I fear he may have become yours. Just as I fear he may already be.
I was frightened by my visit to the dentist, I admit. I gave my name to the woman at the desk, and she was old and ugly, and seemed barely to have teeth in her head herself – and I remember at the time thinking she was hardly a good advertisement for the firm – and being rather amused at that, and rather proud of myself that through all my fear I could still be amused. She wasn’t kind, but not quite rude, and told me to take a seat, and that the dentist would see me soon.
The dentist was not as I expected. You know Michael, of course. You know what an impression he makes. But to me, with my memory of dentists as being big and brutish, the contrast between my expectations and the reality of the man was all the more acute. Bookish, lanky, a gentle face hidden somewhat behind owlish glasses. I looked at his arms.
“Your arms,” I remember saying, “hardly seem strong enough to pull a tooth out of my head.”
He smiled. “I assure you, madam, I am equal to the task.” And he offered me his hand to shake. I thought that was a peculiar thing for a dentist to do, and then it occurred to me that maybe he was inviting me to inspect the strength of his wrist, so I shook his hand firmly, and was in no especial way reassured.
“Where is the offending tooth?” he asked, and I showed him. I imagined it was by this stage red and pulsating, it should have been easy to spot. “I see,” he mused, then smiled, “well, we can have that out in a moment! How long has it been since you last visited a dentist?” And I didn’t want to answer that, because to have done so would have suggested my age, and I thought that his asking was rather an impertinence.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, and he smiled, and I could see at last his own teeth, and how white they were, and how neat, and how full his mouth was. “There’ll be no pain. There’s a new method, straight from the Americas. Tell me,” and he leaned forward, as if in confidence, as if he were telling me the biggest, naughtiest secret, “have you ever taken nitrous oxide?”
I dreamed of Eloise. I think. Sometimes when the mood comes upon me I don’t dream of anything at all, but there’s now a memory of Eloise in my head, she must have been there with me. I’m glad. Sometimes I barely remember I even have a daughter. Sometimes I can remember a daughter was at some point a part of my life, but she’s too far away, I can’t recall anything except the concept of her. I suppose I must have been writing about her to you. I suppose that’s what it must have been.
So even if this letter does you no good, – and I worry about you, I worry about all these new appointments of yours, I worry about how clearly you mock me whilst you make them, I worry that you are already fallen, as damned as I am – if this letter does you no good, it still does me good, it brings even briefly my little Eloise back to me.
He’d not told the truth about the nitrous oxide. There was pain, there was a lot of it, and I remember even now with so much else forgotten that awful ripping sensation as he tore the tooth out of my head. But the nitrous oxide meant I didn’t care. I knew what was happening was bad, and that every nerve in my body was shrieking at me to take care of myself – but I didn’t care, I let it all happen anyway.
Isn’t that just like love? When you can’t stop yourself. Even if you know nothing good can come out of it. Even if you know that all before you is ruin, and shame, the loss of honour and so many more important things besides. But the love makes you woozy. It makes you not care.
I get ahead of myself. And anyway, you know. You know. I can see it in your face. You love my husband. You know it’s bad, but you’re trapped, and you’re pulling the trap around you ever closer. You’re the one who’s doing it, and you’re grinning as you do so. Grinning at me. I’d like to slap that mocking smile off your face.
John was waiting for me at home. He was worried for me, he told me he’d taken the day from the bank anyway, he couldn’t concentrate knowing I was undergoing such a fearsome operation. And sometimes when John would say such dear and loving things I’d feel an indulgence towards him, but now the sensation was numbed, it all sounded a bit annoying and I wondered whether that too was an effect of the gas. I was still in pain. And a rudimentary analysis with my tongue revealed that the dentist hadn’t extracted the entire tooth at all; he’d broken it, and the stump still remained embedded in my gum, sharp now and splintered, and still pulsating away with all the agony it could. John was furious. He told me that he’d go and see the dentist, expose him as a bally charlatan. He’d find me someone else who could finger inside my mouth. I told him not to worry. I would go back the next day, see Mr Kelly for myself, and I was sure everything would be put right.
The receptionist didn’t seem surprised I had returned so soon, and entered my second appointment big and thick into the ledger: April the 7th. I went in to see the dentist. I opened wide, in he peered. “Oh dear,” he said, and laughed a little awkwardly. “I do seem to have let you down rather. Let me have another try.”
“With more nitrous oxide?” I asked.
“With more nitrous oxide,” he agreed, “and lots of it! But this time, if you trust me, I shall have to administer it to you much more carefully. But do you trust me?” I told him I trusted him; I opened my mouth as large as it would go. The day before he had wafted the gas over me every which way with a bit of rubber tube, there’d been no direction or control to it at all. Now he took the tube – he put it in his own mouth – he sucked on it, hard, until his eyes bulged fit to pop.
I was surprised, but I kept that mouth wide open.
And then he clamped his lips upon mine, and blew the gas into my mouth.
As I write this down, I can see that it sounds untoward. But I want to stress that even at this stage this wasn’t a kiss, there was nothing informal about it, and as he pressed his mouth against my own, and wiggled about a little to ensure that the gas filled every possible crevice in there, it all seemed very medical and proper.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Perfectly,” I assured him.
“Good,” he said, and took another puff. Then he was back at my mouth again. This time, and I think it was the effect of the gas, but I began to feel light-headed; I determined to enjoy the experience; I closed my eyes, and drifted a bit. I resolved to keep my tongue away from his, but the tongue loved the gas, it danced in it, it writhed – and I think it may have brushed against his, it couldn’t help it.
I think we forgot about my tooth for a while. I told him that his arm was too scrawny to extract a tooth properly, and he laughed, and said maybe I was right; and I said that my arm was stronger than his, and he asked if that were a challenge, and I said it was, and we arm wrestled for a time, and I won, although I wonder now whether he let me.
“Oh, your tooth,” he said, maybe half an hour later, and he yanked out the little stump, and presented it to me with all ceremony. He did a little bow. I tried a curtsey in response, but I was lying on a couch, it was hard to do, and I nearly rolled off.
And then suddenly the dentist was holding his head in his hands, turning from me. “Oh, G_d,” he said, “oh, G_d.”
I asked him what was wrong.
“I think I’m in love with you,” he said. “I can’t control myself.”
I told him that was most unfortunate, because I was a married woman.
“I know,” he said, “and I’m a married man, the situation is impossible.” He told me he was married to the toothless old crone out in reception. I confess, I admitted some surprise he’d got himself shackled to such a fright. “You mustn’t judge her,” she said, “she’s a good woman, she’s kind. And maybe I did all that to her, who knows what horrors we do to each other in the name of love? Oh, G_d!”
He seemed very distraught, and I wanted to reassure him, so I got to my feet. The upright position no longer seemed a natural one to adopt, and I wobbled a bit. And I tried to give him some nitrous oxide of my own, I pressed my lips to his and exhaled deeply, just so he might get some of my last traces.
“I just want to be happy,” he said. “Don’t I deserve that? I’m not a bad man. In spite of what I do to people. Forgive me!”
I thanked him for his dentistry, gave him one last blast of my gas. And told him I wouldn’t see him again.
That night I went back to John. John seemed a very comfortable thing all of a sudden, warm and reassuring, and not a little dull. He asked me if I was all right, and I showed him the tooth stump Michael had given me, and he winced a bit, and said we need hardly have it as a keepsake, and threw it into the fire.
He said to me in bed, very gently, in the dark, “Darling, I think it’s Thursday.” And I’d so forgotten which day of the week it was. “But we don’t have to,” he assured me, “not if you don’t want to, not with the awful trial of the last two days.” But I told him I was ready. And so he took off his pyjamas, and got up on top of me, and he began to grunt. And I lay there and I thought of the wonders of modern dentistry, that pain could be suppressed so easily, it was really a marvel – and I thought of the dentist too, Michael Kelly, his name was Michael Kelly. I tried the surname on for size, and it sounded naughty, it sounded odd, but it sounded good. “Are you all right?” John asked, and I said I was. And then, and it was the funniest thing, I felt I began to smell the nitrous oxide coming off me. I could breathe it, it was in my lungs, it was in my nostrils as I exhaled, exhaled thick clouds of it, and if I puffed with my mouth I could fancy I was sending out big greasy bubbles of the stuff, bubbles floating over me, floating over John as he pumped away, bubbles that just wouldn’t burst. “Are you all right?” John said again, and I said I was, yes, perfectly, yes. I could tell he was wondering why I was panting air at him, so I thought I’d better stop – or, at the very least, pant it out a bit more discreetly. But the gas made me want to laugh, I had to swallow my giggles down, I didn’t want John to be alarmed, I didn’t want him thinking I was enjoying myself. And then – and then – and then I felt I wasn’t quite me at all – that I was watching from above, that I was up there floating with the bubbles, and I was looking down on this poor woman being flattened by a fat old goat, and I was wondering why she’d bothered, why she didn’t kick him off and find something better – and then – and then, I swear – it was as if I could feel my skin changing, I could feel it getting looser, puddingy, I could feel my eyes glaze, and I could feel there wasn’t a tooth in my mouth – and then there was the pain, the familiar pain, and it pulled me right back into myself, I heard the goat grunt, I grunted too, I couldn’t help it – “Are you all right?” said John, as he rolled off. “Are you all right, I love you so much,” and I said I was all right, of course I was all right, I was always all right, and I said I loved him too.
This time the mood took me for over a week – nine whole days, I’m told! – and when I recovered my senses I still wasn’t able to talk for a while. Michael wheeled me into the back room, and there he fed me tomato soup so hot that it made my teeth smart. “What am I going to do with you?” he asked me, though he knew I couldn’t reply. “You’re getting worse and worse, it breaks my heart. And I need someone at reception!” And when he wasn’t there he sat me facing the other Mrs Kelly, my predecessor – and that felt cruel, but I’m sure the cruelty was quite unintentional – and it was like staring into a broken mirror. And I doubt the other Mrs Kelly even knew I was there, but once in a while she made a sound that was like laughter, and her eyes would roll, and her tongue would run wetly over her lips.
“Do you still love me?” I asked Michael this morning, and I could see how pleased he was I could talk again; “Of course I love you!” he said, and he gave me a hug. And I dare say he meant it as he said it, but the hug felt awkward to me, it wasn’t the hug you gave a wife but a dying grandmother. And I think now, as I write to you, how many times by now has he said he loves you? And how does he do it? Did he tell you, like me, that he was lonely, that he needed some tenderness in his life? That his wife couldn’t properly satisfy his desires? That he was a good man, really, a good man – that he surely deserved a little happiness?
How has he hooked you?
I let him extract three perfectly good teeth before I told him how I felt about him. He was preparing the nitrous oxide, he was sucking it down and was about to blow it into my lungs, and I just came out with it. Said that my front molar wasn’t hurting me at all, there was no need for further use of the pliers. I had only wanted the excuse to see him again. And at that he laughed so much, and I don’t think it was just the gas. He said I was such a silly. And I’d never felt like a silly before, Mother and Father had wanted me to be a sensible upright girl, and now I liked the idea of being silly. We kissed, and it wasn’t a medical procedure this time, it was lips and tongues and chewing and gulping, and it’s true, there wasn’t really a great deal of difference, but there was an honesty to it, I think, a relief that our feelings were all out in the open.
“I want to make love to you right now,” Michael then said, and he lifted up my petticoats. I asked him whether we should at least close the door. But he told me his wife was having one of her moods, and she’d be dead to the world for hours; she couldn’t walk with her thick ulcerous legs, she could barely talk these days.
We made love then on the dentist’s chair, and the lights were on, and I had never made love in the brightness before, and it all seemed so different when you could see all the bits flying about. I could see the strain on Michael’s face, and it made him look a little ridiculous, as if he were trying so very hard to do a difficult thing when it was really terribly easy, wasn’t it? And I thought of how John’s face must have looked all those years, and how mercifully protected I’d been from his facial contortions by the darkness, and I began to laugh. And Michael laughed too, and then suddenly stopped, and I could see the horror on his face, and he pulled off me, he was staring at me, his eyes wide open, so frightened.
“Oh G_d,” he said. “No, G_d, not again, please, not again!”
And I tried to speak, but I couldn’t; and I put my hand up to my throat, and my hand was big and meaty and decked in liver spots; and the skin around the throat felt looser, as if breaking into coils; I was becoming looser, more puddingy, I was melting into a fat puddle.
“Not again,” he said, and he wasn’t looking at me, he was trying not to look at all, “why does this keep happening to me?”
I stared into the dull metal of his dental instruments, and the reflection that came back was distorted – but – it was her, it was her. It was the woman who sat at reception, the sour-faced fat dumpling of a wife. And I tried to scream, but it hurt, the sound that issued was a low rasp.
“Ssh, ssh, darling,” he said. “I know what to do, I’ve done it before.”
That was the first time he took me to his back room. There sat his wife, and I stared at her, and properly at last, and I couldn’t help it – because I knew now that was what I looked like, this is what he’d done to us.
I couldn’t talk for two days. He’d come and feed us both soup. He’d tell us he loved us. He’d give us both hugs. He’d tell us he was sorry.
And two things kept nagging at me. He’d said ‘again’, this was happening ‘again’, this ‘kept’ happening to him. How many other women had he transformed into his fat wife?
And what had he done with them?
He didn’t call me by my name any more. He called me Alice. Just as he called his other wife Alice. And when I could talk again, he moved me into reception. He showed me how to take appointments. What to write in the ledger. And I told him, Michael, I know. I already know, I’ve been doing it for years.
Sometimes I am Alice. Sometimes I fall into my moods, and I’m really nobody at all, there’s nobody home, and I sleep a bit. And sometimes, just once in a while, I remember I have a daughter named Eloise. And I try to write the letter.
The police looked for me. It was in all the newspapers, I saw it from the ones left in the waiting room. The police even came to the dentist’s. Nobody could tell them anything. I couldn’t tell them anything either, I didn’t know anything that day, and when I tried to make my brain work it spluttered and stalled, and my tongue hung heavy in my mouth with the effort.
I meant to write you this letter one lucid afternoon, when suddenly my life before made sense, when it seemed so close I could almost pull it back, could be me again. I fear this has taken too long to write. I fear that you and he are already lovers.
Maybe you won’t turn into me. Who knows? Maybe with you it’ll be true love. Strong enough to love as yourself, and never change. I hope so. I hate you. I hate you from the very bottom of my heart. But I hope so.
Don’t become me. Don’t become me. Don’t become me. Don’t b