Flatworms

Fiction
Inés G. Labarta


Photo Credit: Max Jackson (CC-by-nc-nd)

When I learned that Miss Barale had been a piano virtuoso I was ecstatic. Back in the 1940s, she moved to England from Italy thanks to her musical genius. A bit like I’d done. Well, except she was escaping fascism and I was just running away from Spain’s economic cataclysm and Dad’s dream of me becoming a famous pianist.

Dad was a bit of a melomaniac. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor, he used to say, classical music blasting out from his stereo. Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky. The Russians were always his favourite. Once, he’d found hundreds of classical music CDs in black bin bags nearby a radio station. Tossed away after being digitalised, I guess. Dad had to get some custom-designed shelves to store them at home, and even after that, there were CDs on the counters, under the beds, stacked next to the laundry basket in the toilet.

He wasn’t one of those parents who force their children to play piano eight hours a day. I chose it. My mother had a small Casio keyboard that she left behind when she moved out. She used to practice Bach Minuets on it. I hate Bach. But I was fascinated by the machine, so I kept playing it on my own. Dad got me classes—first a small music academy around the corner, then a private school, then the Madrid Royal Conservatory. I developed tendonitis upon tendonitis and still couldn’t make my hands wider or stronger to play the pieces I knew would impress juries the most at piano competitions. I was good, very good, but I wasn’t brilliant.

I found a black-and-white recording of a young Miss Barale playing Petrushka, Stravinsky’s most diabolical piano composition, at the Royal Albert Hall. Long curly hair and large hands taming that beast of a piece. Her performance gave me shivers, as if I was seeing her tickle a Siberian tiger under the chin to make it purr.

I began to think that if I could master that piano piece too, maybe there was a chance of me becoming a virtuoso after all.

*

I chose to work as a domestic in the care home because I knew it would feel familiar. Dad was already old when he had me, and I’d been raised by him and his friends. Soft skin like tracing paper. Flesh that folds and wrinkles. The pearly colour of fake teeth. Bodies that grow small and angular.

Dad wouldn’t have approved of this job, though. He had spent most of his retirement savings to take me around Spain for piano competitions and concerts. But, after I went to study History and Musicology in England, all our savings were gone. I was lucky I could live with my friend Lily, a mature student I’d met at university and who let me stay with her rent-free. And with Dad not being able to get out of the house anymore, he needed someone to help out. He couldn’t afford a carer on his pension, so I sent him money. When he asked, I told him I earned it teaching piano lessons via Zoom and promised I’d keep attending orchestra auditions as soon as they reopened.

*

‘How is your dad doing, María?’ Lily asked.

‘He’s good,’ I said. ‘Takes his clove of black garlic every morning, natural antibiotic he calls it, plus a bit of fennel to avoid bad breath. He says that’s how he’s going to live until he’s one hundred.’

‘Worth a try, am I right?’ Lily chuckled. ‘And how’s work?’

‘Not so bad,’ I said. ‘When I clean the corridors I always see residents pacing up and down, all day long. They call them Wanderers. In the evening, as they get tired, they start leaning forwards more and more… We’ve to watch out for incontinence pads on the floor, I think they slide down the bottom of their trousers’ legs… The other domestics think it’s funny, but you know, I couldn’t stand being always indoors. I’d end up just like them.’

‘Are they not allowed out?’

‘Not since lockdown.’

Truth is, I felt a bit guilty about my job. Lily turned eighty-three in November. Like Dad, she was in a high-risk category, so she’d also decided to not go outside until things cleared up. We’d agreed we shouldn’t physically see each other and we kept ourselves to different areas of the house. And what we shared—the kitchen, her piano—we disinfected constantly.

‘I’m cooking tonight,’ I said. ‘Shall I bring a dish to your door when it’s done?’

‘That’d be nice.’

Lily had forgotten to eat lunch again.

‘At least you left your room…’ The piano was in the hall, set against the stairs, and when I came in I saw she’d been fidgeting with my scores. ‘You’re trying to learn Petrushka too?’

‘Sounds interesting when you practice.’

‘It’s driving me mad.’

‘You only need time. I have lots. Maybe I can play it before you,’ she joked.

‘Sure,’ I laughed. Lily had also grown up playing but had dropped it when her family pressured her to study medicine, like her father. She’d ended up as a biologist in a lab in Oxford, having only gone back to practising piano after retirement. I very much doubted she could ever play Petrushka. Then again, I wasn’t doing brilliantly either.

*

I’d met Miss Barale through my job in the care home. She lived on the fourth unit, which I was scheduled to clean every time there was a shortage of staff. That’s where the patients with less mobility stayed. They were normally in the last states of dementia or had suffered a stroke. Miss Barale was short, with a curled skeletal body, bulging cloudy eyes and wispy hair like antennae. I’d heard one of the other domestics say she looked like a crustacean. I thought that was mean, and I told her.

I wasn’t supposed to talk to the residents or interact with them in any manner—I wasn’t a carer—but I liked to greet them and chat when no one was around. I made a few friends that way. Like Mr Jenkins, who often forgot he couldn’t walk and tried to stand up out of his wheelchair. He loved to flirt and always dressed smart and colourfully: yellow-knitted vests, black-and-white oxford shoes. Or Mrs Orwell, who had been in the WAAF during the war and spent hours watching the bird feeder by her window. She taught me how to distinguish between different kinds of finches. And Miss Barale, of course. The rest of the staff referred to her as The Screamer. Whenever you entered the room she’d start mumbling to herself (she may have been blind and immobile, but her hearing was acute) and when you got near her she screamed her lungs out. The carers thought she was just babbling but after a few days, I was pretty sure she was speaking Italian.

‘Chi sta venendo, chi è là, shh, shh, vai vai, non mi toccare, vai…’

I memorised her words and improvised different ways of spelling them on an online translator. That’s how I understood that she didn’t know where she was or who we were. I used the same online translator to teach myself a couple of sentences to communicate with her.

‘Buongiorno signora, si trova in una casa di cura, mi chiamo María e mi prenderò cura di lei. Va tutto bene.’

Despite my atrocious accent, it worked. Sometimes Miss Barale would mumble back to me, still a bit nervous. I couldn’t understand most of it but I kept repeating ‘Va tutto bene, tutto bene’ like a lullaby, and she let me go around the room.

*

No matter what, it was my job to clean the basement every afternoon. I was the new one, and none of the other domestics would take it. A room with fluorescent lights reflecting on the white walls that seemed to be out of proportion with the rest of the floors. Too vast and open. As if the space inside the care home had expanded underground, defying all logic. In reality, this basement also belonged to the building next door: a research centre for neurological diseases.

The basement was noiseless, apart from the humming of the freezers and the cold storage unit that you stopped hearing after ten minutes or so. I took advantage of being alone and played music on my headphones—I’d already learned to hide my phone in my uniform. I downloaded different piano versions of Petrushka and I listened to them again and again, memorising the polyrhythms, the glissandos, the tremolos…

It was there I started hearing it again. The banging. At first, I thought it was something wrong with my headphones, or that the music files were corrupted. But when I took them out, it was clearer than ever.

Like a thousand rock-cold hands banging on invisible doors.

*

The corridors in Lily’s house were high and narrow. Darkness gathered like clouds around me. I switched on the light by the stairs before I sat on the cold tiled floor with my back against the door. I missed Lily’s smell. The warmth of her wrinkled hands. Her ocean-vast blue eyes.

‘They keep brains in these fridges in the basement,’ I told her. ‘It’s for some Alzheimer’s research they do… I needed special training to clean the dissecting rooms.’

‘In the care home?’

‘Yes. They cut the dead residents’ skulls with a large serrated knife, get the brain out, then put a handkerchief around the head so the family doesn’t notice when they bury them…’

‘Have you seen that?’

‘No, I only clean afterwards. But they told me. Would you donate your organs to science?’

‘Well.’ On the other side of the door, Lily took her time before answering. I pictured her sitting on the green armchair she had in her bedroom, dragged to the door to talk more comfortably. We hadn’t seen each other for months. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘I wouldn’t mind donating mine. I mean, once I die, I don’t care what they do with my body. It’s only a carcass.’

‘I don’t like the idea of someone touching, cutting, looking inside,’ Lily said.

‘But you used human bodies when you were at university, to learn and stuff?’

‘I did. I messed up some of my dissections. It’s not always respectful.’

‘But at that point, the human is all gone. It’s just meat.’

‘Maybe. But when I die, I don’t want anyone tossing my organs around.’

*

Glorianne was the most experienced domestic in our team and, as our self-appointed boss, she made sure to keep an eye on me during my first week.

‘Hey, María. Want to sit outside for tea?’ She had crunchy coiled hair and black-rimmed glasses. I’d seen the other domestics took turns to bring her strong black coffee, four sugars, before the start of every shift.

‘Face masks and aprons are running out, huh?’ Glorianne took out her BLT sandwich carefully packed in two napkins and foil.

‘Yeah. I’ve noticed.’ My lunch consisted of a box filled with mashed potato soaked in cheap olive oil. I was saving every penny to send to Dad.

‘It doesn’t surprise me,’ she continued. ‘Aaron, my brother, he’s a nurse at the Infirmary. He told me that someone stole three thousand face masks over there.’

‘From the hospital?’

‘Right before lockdown. Someone smart, I guess. Bet they made a lot of money selling them.’

After her sandwich, Glorianne rolled a cigarette.

‘You Italian?’ She asked me.

‘Spanish.’

‘They have it bad in Spain now, don’t they? I’m from Malta. It’s easier to control things there. Small islands, you know? Why are you here anyways?’

‘No jobs back home. I’m a pianist.’

‘Well done you,’ Glorianne said and, for the first time, she smiled at me. ‘Do you know we have a bit of a celebrity pianist here? Miss Barale. The Screamer. I know she doesn’t look like it but, back in her day, she toured all over the country. Stuck here for twenty years, though. Good that she has no memory now and can’t miss it.’

*

‘Today at work there was a bit of drama,’ I said to Lily, gulping down my soup. We both ate and chatted on our side of the door.

‘What was it?’

‘We don’t have face masks or aprons anymore. Gone. I think Glorianne thought I may have taken them.’

‘Why you?’

‘Because I’m broke, and I have Dad back home. But it’s all right. We chatted, cleared things up. We’re both Mediterranean. She told me as long as I’m not Italian, I’m OK. She hates Italians. Mafiosi, she called them.’

‘This Glorianne sounds quite the…’

‘No, she’s nice. But today everyone was complaining and then Mrs Hampson, the director, went out and bought us tons of these paint face masks… Glorianne says they’re not great, really, you need the proper ones to be protected… ah, and Mrs Hampson bought bin bags too. She told us to cut a hole in the bottom, for the head, and to use them as aprons.’

‘When will you get the new equipment?’

‘Don’t know. It’s all going to the NHS at the moment, that’s what Glorianne says.’

I didn’t tell her about the banging I kept hearing day after day. Or what my coworkers whispered in the staff room. They didn’t feel safe. So many were getting ill, and not only the residents. The cleaning team had always been understaffed but now things were much worse. And the personal carers kept quitting. One of them was in the hospital, struggling. Who knew if she was going to come out of it.

I took my temperature every night when I went home from work and started obsessing with the glands in my throat—were they swollen? Painful? To keep calm, I focused on Dad’s motto: life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor.

*

The cold storage unit they had in the cellar to keep the residents who passed away got full. They received another one, three or four times larger. They had to put it in the backyard. It was white on the outside and looked like one of those shipping containers that are repurposed into offices, or classrooms. But windowless. It was spacious, so it could take corpses from the area when the funeral homes started having waiting lists.

Every day, when I went to work, the first thing I did was to see if Miss Barale was still in her bed on the fourth unit. I made myself invisible to the other residents—I had received two warnings for cleaning too slowly, a third one meant a disciplinary—but she was the exception.

In my broken Italian, I complained to her about a burning pain that started in the joint of my thumb and went all the way up to the elbow. Petrushka was a meat grinder and I was stupid enough to put my hands in it every single day, for hours. I envied Miss Barale’s hands. Even when eaten by her arthritis—curled rigid fingers—they were still sizeable and wide. I’d read somewhere that Russian composers wrote the most difficult piano pieces because Russians have larger hands than the average European. That was some bullshit, though. I’d seen a video of a Russian virtuoso playing Petrushka. This guy was younger than me, but had already toured the world to perform in all the main music venues: La Scala, Viena Musikverein, Sidney Opera House, you name it. Yet, watching him play Petrushka was painful. He frowned, clenched his jaw and ground his teeth as if he was wrestling to lift an impossible weight. Fat drops of sweat hung from his hair and fell steadily on the keyboard. When he finished the three movements and stood up to salute the audience, his tuxedo looked wrinkly and wet, as if he’d been sleeping rough for weeks.

In the black-and-white videos, Miss Barale had the stern look of a Roman statue. Her hands fluttered across the keyboard like birds.

One day, I put my headphones in her ears. I was hoping she’d tell me her secret. Petrushka wasn’t about hand anatomy or physical strength. This piece was a fiendish mental labyrinth with only one way out.

She became alert when the first chords broke the silence. This was her own recording from 1964. From there, her cloudy eyes remained stuck on the wall. She didn’t utter a word, not even her usual mumbling. Her fingers started shaking. One could have mistaken that slight movement as a tic.

I recognised the sequence.

*

‘I’ll never finish learning this damn piece,’ I complained to Lily. ‘Stravinsky composed it for someone with sixteen fingers. I can’t move them fast enough. It’s like Olympic gymnastics for my hands.’

‘Maybe it’s all that thinking you’re doing. People assume brains keep all the memories,’ she started tapping at her side of the door, ‘but they’re stored all over the body.’

Her tapping was reproducing Chez Pétrouchka, the piece’s second movement.

‘When I was working in the labs, down in Oxford, we did quite a few experiments on cellular memory. We wanted to prove it,’ Lily said.

‘Hasn’t it been proved already?’

‘No. People still call it a pseudoscience. But we got somewhere. We started with flatworms. We trained them to associate light and open spaces with food. That’s not your normal kind of behaviour in flatworms. When they were good at that, we chopped them and fed them to other flatworms. Those learned the tricks much faster.’

‘Because they kind of ingested their memories?’

‘We went a step further. We tried with rats.’

‘Mammals…’

‘Exactly. We used mazes with them. Then we fed them to other rats and…’

‘Did it work?’

‘It did. We had two different groups. One where rats had fed on their relatives, another where they only got the normal diet. The first learned much faster. But see, that’s not that different from what we used to do.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Ritual cannibalism was something that happened in prehistoric times. You know, people believed that eating organs from their deceased, like the brain and the heart, would pass on some… characteristics. Skills. Inclinations.’

*

‘Can you hear that?’ I asked Glorianne.

We were on our ten-minute break in the staff area. The room was windowless and felt more like a cupboard: lockers stacked on top of each other against the wall, mountains of coats hanging from the hooks, street shoes all over the floor. That day, there were no other domestics around the sticky table, fighting for the chairs that weren’t broken.

‘Hear now? It’s happening again.’

‘What?’ she said.

‘The banging. It’s always going on… in the unit below… Where is everyone, by the way?’

‘I can’t hear anything.’ Glorianne took the coffee I’d brought her. ‘Have you put four sugars in this? It’s so bitter.’

‘But it’s always there,’ I insisted. ‘Can you not hear it?’

‘Come on now, don’t be like the others. Saying that they’ve heard Mrs Pryce strolling down the corridor with her walker even though she died three years ago. Ghosts?’ she scoffed. ‘Nonsense. You die, you go to Heaven, or down there if that’s what you deserve. We don’t linger around. By the way, are you free this Sunday coming? We have another one down on sick leave.’

‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I said.

‘I just don’t get it. Who can afford to be on sick leave for two weeks? If I have to come to work with a temperature, I will. Won’t be the first time.’

‘Wait… there it is again… hear the banging now?’

‘I mean, is Mrs Hampson going to pay my food bills? Or my rent? I have three children to take care of all on my own, so don’t have time to play Mother Teresa. And you, come on, let’s go to work. Have to clean six units now between us.’

I’d also thought the banging was in my head. Tiredness, maybe. I was doing extra shifts almost every day. For a moment, I even feared it was some sort of defect or illness in my ears. But I only heard it when I was in the care home. It never followed me outside.

I decided to check for myself. The next time I caught it—wheeling my trolley down the fourth unit—I stopped and closed my eyes. It was coming from below. I left the trolley on the corner and followed the noise.

Bang, bang, bang.

Down on the second level, the corridor lights switched on as I went in. Squeaky floor, baby blue walls, white doors. Nothing else.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I felt lucky to be alone in the corridors—no chance of being spotted and getting another warning—but then, I realised, something was wrong. No Wanderers pacing up and down. The day room was also empty. Naked tables, empty chairs. Dust snowing on the unoccupied sofas.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

The sound came from behind the locked doors.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I put my ear against one of them—the gesture felt familiar, I almost expected Lily to talk from the other side.

Someone slapped against it.

The bang reverberated on my skull.

I jumped back and ran away towards the stairs. I tripped and rolled down. I sat on the landing, dizzy. The only sound I could hear now was the pounding in my head.

*

Like in the old times, I was putting five, six hours on the piano per day. Right after work, I’d go straight to it. I didn’t even bother with food. The keys were teeth, and I was their meal. I didn’t need the scores anymore. It’s not that I had them in my head and could visualise them at will. It was all in my fingers. They remembered. My hands hovered over the keys, assuming their position. I released them. As the music started, my mind went blank. It was like floating inside warm, golden light. A space where thoughts couldn’t form. My cells disintegrated. The melody went on and on and on. And on, and on, and on…

It struck me, right there. What the banging was.

*

Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. That’s what Dad used to say. A symphony orchestra has at least one hundred instruments organised by families—string, woodwind, brass and percussion—all with their own internal hierarchies. It’s not easy to hold the baton to impose harmony on them all.

I tried to make things right.

As soon as I arrived to work the next day I looked for Glorianne. I wanted to tell her about how I was sure they had the residents locked in their rooms on the first and second units and wouldn’t let them out. Who was feeding them? Who was helping them wash, or put their clothes on? Why hadn’t we been told?

I checked the staff room and all over our unit and the rest of the building, but I couldn’t find her. Maybe she’d also gotten ill. I worried. It had to be very bad if she hadn’t shown up for work.

I spent the rest of the day shivering while scrubbing the floors in the basement. Wondering how one could play a piano piece that emulated the effect of dozens of instruments with only ten fingers.

*

I thought about going to the press. To tell them that we didn’t have personal carers anymore and that most of the domestics were on sick leave. And the banging. But when I tried to make sense of what had happened—give the events a chronology, cause and effect, I froze.

Even my first day at the care home is blurry.

The only clear image I have is from the exterior of the building. A four-floor concrete monstrosity with rows and rows of small windows. Empty sockets facing the bleak landscape of the bay.

Inside, I only remember pushing my cleaning trolley down the corridors. The clicking of the bleach tablets inside the plastic buckets. The colour-coded cleaning tools. How it hurt to breathe in, with the thick mint balm they made us apply under the nostrils.

And the noise. Coming from behind the locked doors in the corridors.

Bang, bang, bang.

*

‘Miss Barale is dead,’ I told Lily while I played with the pasta in my bowl.

‘The pianist?’

‘Yes. She wasn’t there when I went to do my rounds. Passed away yesterday.’

‘Was it…?’

‘Yeah. She’d had it for two weeks. I didn’t know. They only gave her painkillers.’

I dropped the bowl on the floor.

‘Dad was admitted to the hospital. A neighbour called me.’ My tears were solid like a tennis ball, down at the back of my throat. Hard to swallow.

I knew the hospital he was in. We’d been there before when they had to extract his gallbladder. Rooms were small, but they faced a park. At this time of the year, he would be seeing black poplar trees with their new lime-coloured leaves

‘That’s good, María. They’ll take care of him there,’ Lily said. I knew what she meant. Miss Barale hadn’t been given that chance.

‘I hired a private nurse to stay with him day and night… I don’t want him alone.’

I thought of the residents at the care home, quarantined in their rooms. Without carers, we were now in charge of bringing them food in trays. Some of the domestics refused to enter the rooms. They said it wasn’t their job, and that they were scared of getting near the residents without proper face masks and PPE. I still did. Tried to clean them a bit, if they let me. Calm down their cries. Give notice when I found out someone had stopped breathing.

‘He may get out. He wants to see you again, that’ll give him strength,’ Lily said. ‘I can lend you money if you need it. For the nurse.’

‘No, no, I’m fine. All I’m doing is to pay a stranger to hold his hand. It should be me there, changing his bedpan, helping him eat.’

‘But you can’t travel there now,’ Lily said. ‘And it doesn’t look like countries are opening borders any time soon.’

I checked my phone. Nothing. I felt nauseous every time I thought I’d felt it vibrating in my pocket, or discovered the red notification of a missed call.

‘You’re getting better at Petrushka,’ Lily tried to change the subject. ‘I can’t get past the first page.’

‘It’s all over now. Without Miss Barale, I…’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I was just hoping that she would, you know, eventually teach me or at least explain to me what is that I…’

The cries came out of nowhere, dry and raspy. I hid my face behind my hands even though I knew no one could see me. I thought about the black body bags left on the beds because the new cold storage unit was full. They looked like bin bags. Like the ones Dad dragged home years ago, full of CDs, as if he’d found a treasure.

*

I moved through the large bright space of the basement which seemed to contract and expand like a giant heart. I felt very hot—the fluorescent lights shining on me like piercing suns. The bin bag tied as an apron melting with my uniform onto my bare skin. I had forgotten to check my temperature for days. Not good. I took off my face mask. I couldn’t breathe.

The refrigerators went on with their humming. Rows and rows of them, glossy white. They seemed to move ever so slightly, almost as if they were breathing. I blinked to focus my vision.

I wondered what the brains inside looked like. If they were all in containers, or in bags. Would they have tags attached to them? Perhaps small labels noting the weight, who the brain belonged to. Maybe some information about the person.

It couldn’t be that difficult to locate Miss Barale’s.

I imagined her playing Petrushka at the Royal Albert Hall, packed full, her fingers repeating a perfect sequence of movements that emulated the melodies of a whole symphony orchestra. All the neural connections sharp and sublime waves pouring over her body.

What would it be like to taste them?

pencil

Inés G. Labarta is a fiction writer currently living in the southwest of England. She has published a collection of middle-grade novels—Los Pentasónicos (Edebé, 2008-2010) and two novellas—McTavish Manor (Holland House, 2016) and Kabuki (Dairea, 2017). Her forthcoming novel, The Three Lives of Saint Ciarán (Blackwater Press, 2023), was described by Toby Litt as ‘exciting and provocative’. She has an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth. Twitter: @InesGLabarta Email: ines.g.labarta[at]gmail.com