Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
A Return to Normalcy
Oh, what a glorious day! Early this morning, Psychology 713 and I were walking through the woods chatting about this, that and the other, as lovers often will, when she happened to mention that it was the first of May.
“That reminds me of a poem I once heard,” I said with a mischievous grin.
Every morning before breakfast, we have been going on these long walks. And every morning, I will woo her with a few lines of poetry that I’ll have plucked from the internet the night before, from William Wordsworth maybe, or Samuel Coleridge, or Alfred Lord Tennyson, whereupon she will roll her eyes and groan. All in good fun.
Today’s quotation was a wee bit different:
“Hey hey, it’s the first of May, outdoor fucking starts today“
“A bit cold for that, wouldn’t you say?”
She was right, of course – we’re up in New Hampshire, here, folks, and it was fucking freezing! – but her subsequent burst of laughter – sweet as the birdsong high up amongst the budding green, bright as the dapples of sunlight on the path leading us through the woodland – would have sent any Romantic poet prancing back to his stone cottage to compose another sonnet.
In case you couldn’t tell: I’ve fallen head over heels for this fair lass, love that has gone unrequited thus far, alas, but where my choice selections of fine verse had left her unimpressed, this morning’s bit of ribaldry seemed to have struck a chord.
Emboldened, I waited till we reached the scenic viewpoint at the far end of the lake. There, I took her in my arms and we finally kissed. Oh, what sweetness.
Well, almost. She drew back at the very last moment, cautioning me that it was a big day tomorrow, and that we had to be on our best behavior.
Here’s the thing: Psychology 713 really is a psychologist. My psychologist, to be precise, appointed by the New Hampshire Department of Justice to supervise my return to normalcy. Tomorrow, my case is up for review. If all goes well, the committee’s favorable report will be relayed to the Dutch authorities, at which point I will be a free man.
Whence the big day. Whence her plea that we behave ourselves.
“We” is a funny little word. In the worst case, she meant it like a nurse yanking open the curtains in a hospital room and saying: “how are we feeling this morning, Mr. Quinn?”
But I prefer to think that “we” are both holding back, wary of the pitfalls of a therapist-patient relationship. As of tomorrow, though, she goes back to being a regular wellness coach like all the other staff members here at Paradise Lake, and I’ll just be a regular guest whom she happens to feel attracted to, allowing for a much wider range of interactions between the two of us, be they outdoor or indoor.
And considering how many of my girlfriends had ended up morphing into psychologists, why couldn’t a psychologist morph into a girlfriend for a change?
Che sarà, sarà, my friends. In the mean time, evening has fallen over New Hampshire, and as I sit here in my luxury suite in eager anticipation of what the morrow will bring, let me just say how good it is to be back!
Back in the U.S.A., for starters, after being stranded in Amsterdam for more than a year. Back in “Uncle” Joe Biden’s U.S.A., no less, speaking of a return to normalcy. Wasn’t that one of his campaign slogans?
What a crazy time it has been! Not even all that long ago, the twin monsters Covid-19 and Donald-16 had us all in their deadly grip, neither of them showing any signs of ever letting us free. They’re still out there, of course, lurking in the shadows, but phew! At least we can breathe again.
Above all else, though, it’s good to be back in touch with you, my dear readers!
Following the dramatic scene in Full o’Bull’s kitchen, I was advised to put a hold on this novel, first by my lawyer, then by Psych. 713 – in light of that little phrase that we all know from the movies: anything you do say may be used in evidence, blah blah blah.
But with the committee poised to declare me normal first thing tomorrow morning, I see no harm in jumping the gun just a little.
And so, though strictly speaking we’re not out of the woods just yet (and what lovely woods they are, especially in the company of Psychology 713!), we’ve sure come a long way since those hellish first days of interrogations.
“Peter Pan Syndrome,” I kept hearing the men and women in white coats say to each other. Was that my problem? It must have been the sedative that they had given me. They were in fact talking about the “Pieter Baan Centrum”, the forensic psychiatric observation clinic where I was being held, pending my trial.
I’ll never forget the moment that I was lying on my cot awaiting the next psychological test when the door burst open and an old man clutching a walker came clickety-clacking towards me. At first I thought he was some demented old serial rapist who had entered the wrong cell, until he said:
“Grab your stuff, Toby. We’re moving you to a hotel.”
The Brooklyn accent gave him away. Marty?! Marty Liebermann, my lawyer!
His monumental battle with Covid-19 had aged him at least ten years. Gone was the great big paunch with which he literally threw his weight around in the courtroom, the paunch that had landed him in the Intensive Care Unit when he came down with the disease early last year.
Don’t let appearances fool you, though. Grizzly bears are at their most dangerous when they emerge from hibernation, looking all scruffy and emaciated. They’re hungry as hell, of course, and will kill anything that moves. And so it was with Marty. The poor Dutch court system never knew what hit it.
Be a good boy, Marty instructed me in the taxi on the way to the hotel, which was nothing as fancy as the Amstel Hotel, of course, but sure beat the Peter Pan place where they had been holding me. Pending my trial, I was to keep a low profile. No interviews, no more work on my online novel. And please, no lady visitors.
Be a good boy. It was to become my mantra, folks, right up to this very day!
Moving me to the hotel was Marty’s first legal victory. His second was to move the date of the trial way, way up, in spite of the serious backlog clogging up the Dutch judicial calendar.
Be a good boy, Marty warned me again, in the taxi on our way to the hearing. There were going to be lots of women in togas in the courtroom, including the three (!) judges, but please, no flirting. I was to dim the sparkles in my eyes and speak only when spoken to. None of my usual wisecracks. And easy on the remorse. Better to appear unmoved than to fake it.
Provided I took it seriously, the whole trial would just be a joke. Marty’s words, folks, not mine! Even the presiding judge’s name was Joke, a common girl’s name over in Holland. I’ve forgotten her last name, but you can google it if you’re interested. Justice Joke! Imagine that.
Now I’m not going to expose you to the forensic pathologist’s gory testimony. We went through all of that in the previous chapter. Besides, the story has been splashed all across the front pages of the newspapers, along with some disturbingly graphic full color photographs that were never meant to leave the courtroom.
Nor am I going to bore you with too much legal nitty-gritty, for which Marty had summoned the help of some of Holland’s most talented young lawyers, who were willing to do the work for next to nothing, eager as they were to spice up their CV’s. I’d probably get it wrong anyhow.
Long story short: entering a not-guilty plea, Marty argued that I was the victim – yes, the victim! – of a one-time “freak” psychosis, brought on by a most unfortunate, once-in-a-million confluence of factors, to wit: a lingering childhood trauma, the stress of being stranded in a foreign country during a dangerous pandemic, far from my friends and loved ones, and sustained psychological intimidation by my host, a frustrated and vindictive old writer. A hefty dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms had been the final trigger.
The suggestion that poor Full o’ Bull was partly to blame for his own demise was met with gasps of horror from the mere scattering of family and friends that had been allowed into the courtroom because of Covid-19 restrictions. That’s Marty for you. He can be a real asshole at times. It comes with the job, I guess.
They don’t have juries in the Netherlands, so it was up to Justice Joke and her two side-kicks to reach a verdict: not guilty, due to temporary insanity. However, considering the extreme violence displayed during my psychotic episode, I was to be kept under observation in a suitable facility for as long as was deemed necessary to ensure that I was no longer a danger to myself or my surroundings.
The good news for me was that the USA and the Netherlands have all sorts of extradition agreements for cases such as these, the chances of proper treatment and reintegration into society being much higher on home turf. And once I was on that plane, Marty assured me, it was bye-bye Dutch authorities and any influence they hoped to still have on the further handling of my case.
Not that they really cared, he went on to explain. In fact, they were happy to be rid of me, a high-profile suspect like me being a public relations liability. Judge me too leniently, and the right-wing populists would be up in arms; too harshly, and the left-wing intelligentsia would have found themselves another cause célèbre. Better to let this Yankee go home and have his own people deal with him.
Unbeknownst to the paparazzi on either side of the Atlantic, I was put on a plane to Boston, where a limo with shaded windows stood waiting to whisk me off to New Hampshire.
After driving through miles and miles of pristine forest (too bad I hadn’t killed my Dutchman in September, Marty quipped, the fall foliage here was quite spectacular) we reached a massive wrought iron gate guarded by heavily armed personnel and ferocious German shepherds. Not that I was about to enter a maximum security prison for the criminally insane. These measures had been taken to keep the aforementioned paparazzi out.
Thus began my sojourn at Paradise Lake Wellness Spa, a favorite hideaway for the rich and famous. The choice of facility raised a few eyebrows, but Marty’s team had looked into it, and legally, it met all the criteria.
Never mind the sketchy holistic bullshit on their website. They did provide honest-to-goodness therapy for the usual stuff that celebrities struggle with, like substance abuse, burn-out and depression.
And although they hired their wellness coaches for their looks more than anything else, the prettiest one of them all – Psychology 713 – actually had the qualifications required by New Hampshire law to oversee a one-time psychotic’s return to normalcy.
So here I’ve been for the past month and a half, enjoying daily massages and bubble baths, great food, and a lovely view over Paradise Lake and the mountains beyond. The only serious treatment that I’ve been getting are the long morning walks I take with Psychology 713. What rotten luck!
Listen folks, I feel your unease.
Justice Joke sensed it too, after handing down the decision of the court, when she turned to address Full o’Bull’s stony-faced widow and children on a more personal note – at least, I’m assuming they were stony-faced behind the obligatory masks they were wearing.
As a judge, she had been compelled to follow the rule of law, but as a human being, she was sorry to leave them out in the cold in this way, with no form of compensation whatsoever for their terrible loss.
Poor Full o’ Bull. It does seem a bit rich, to be stabbed to death in your own kitchen and have your grieving widow and children left behind empty-handed, while the guy responsible for your demise is being pampered silly in a wellness spa in New Hampshire, with a possible boy-meets-girl ending as the cherry on the cake.
Let me be clear. It’s not that I don’t feel bad about what happened. Honestly folks, I do! It’s just that being the guy who wielded the knife, whatever I do say will tend to sound disingenuous.
Still, I can’t live happily ever without at least having given it a try. So please, my dear, faithful readers, bear with me in this final chapter of Lockdown in Amsterdam, as I struggle to find the right words, even when no such words can ever be found.
But if you would rather turn your back on me right now, no hard feelings! You wouldn’t be the first. I’ve already lost hundreds if not thousands of subscribers because of what happened over in Amsterdam.
Well, boo-hoo, Toby, you might be thinking, boo-hoo – and by golly, I’d deserve your sarcasm, if it was your pity that I was trying to solicit here – but I have some rather disturbing news for you. Though the horrific scene in Full o’Bull’s kitchen lost me quite a few subscribers, it won me a whole lot more! I guess violence sells, even if the person describing it happens to be its perpetrator as well.
Some commentators have condemned my publisher for capitalizing on this cynical state of affairs, and have urged him to do the only right thing, which would be to pull the plug on this novel and break ties with me for good.
He has stood firm. In a free world, people have a right to know what happened, he argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post, even if those events are described through the eyes of a so-called bad guy. His piece closed with the following bit of advice to the reader: “if it’s comfort that you’re looking for, buy a sofa, not a book.”
The paper edition of Lockdown in Amsterdam is scheduled to come out in June and promises to be a mega-bestseller, judging by the number of pre-orders that bookstores all across the country have been putting in. And my agent tells me that the translation rights have already been sold to a host of foreign publishers, including one in the Netherlands.
You’ll never guess which one. Not Sip van Renkum. Screw him. No, it was Full o’ Bull’s publisher! Pretty ironic, huh? I haven’t been following the Dutch news lately, but the move is bound to stoke controversy, which will be great for sales, of course. Maybe they will justify their purchase by eulogizing Full o’ Bull in a special foreword. Maybe they’ll donate some of the proceeds to his widow. Who knows.
Speaking of which, on the plane from Amsterdam to Boston, enjoying an after-dinner Glenfiddich in business class with Marty, I wondered out loud whether I shouldn’t be donating some or even all of my earnings from this novel to Full o’ Bull’s widow and children.
I swear, if I had been the pilot, I’d have turned the plane around and made an emergency landing in Belfast or wherever the fuck we were, that’s how ballistic Marty went.
“Don’t you dare go soft on me, Toby Quinn!”
It’s complicated, folks. When you’ve just walked out of a courtroom without having to pay the aggrieved party a single penny, you can’t simply turn around and hand them your money after all.
How about in a couple of years, then, when the dust has settled?
“Don’t get me started again,” Marty grumbled, frowning down at the ice cubes in his empty whisky glass.
There’s another good reason for leaving Full o’ Bull’s grieving family alone. Linda has made some discreet inquiries at my request, and just as I hoped, his untimely death has led to a modest but definite bump in sales of his books.
Hopefully the posthumous royalties will provide at least some solace for his loved ones. It won’t be much – enough maybe for a fancy dinner, or a weekend in a nice cottage in the Dutch countryside, allowing the family some quality time to reminisce – but for that very reason, dumping a huge bag of cash on their doorstep strikes me as a trifle indelicate.
The next best thing for me to do would be to donate my earnings to a good cause, say, to a psychosis prevention center, if such a place exists, or to an ngo in some or other Third World country.
Why not make that Sri Lanka? I know how Full o’ Bull lost his heart to that country and its people in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. Maybe we could set up a foundation for the families of the victims, and do it in his name, rather than in mine.
Guess what? I just sent Linda an e-mail to see what she thinks of this plan. She tends to be more empathic than Marty.
This feels right, folks. It really does! It won’t bring Full o’Bull back from the dead, and maybe I’m appeasing my own conscience more than anything else, but it’s better than nothing, don’t you agree?
For the rest, all I can do is reiterate what I wrote in the preface to this novel: “unfairness is where the fun begins for us writers. Where would literature be without it?”
More than ever before, I realize that unfairness is where the fun ends for the less fortunate souls on this fine planet of ours, from the newborn wildebeest in the Serengeti, up on its wobbly legs for the very first time, only to be taken down by a pair of laughing hyenas, via the shy young bride and bridegroom in rural Afghanistan, whose wedding party is about to be crashed by an errant drone, to the grumpy old writer in Amsterdam, stabbed to death in his own kitchen by a literary superstar flipping out on magic mushrooms.
As one of the luckier souls, the least I can do is to continue chronicling this fundamental unfairness in novels to come. How does that sound to you?
Hang on folks. I just got a reply from Linda. That was quick!
Huh? “Recipient unknown.” That’s strange. The same thing happened earlier today when I tried to reach Marty. I didn’t think much of it, considering I’d see him tomorrow morning anyway, at the hearing. But now Linda, too.
If this were a horror story, it would be Full o’ Bull at work. Bit by bit, our young hero Toby Quinn, deeming himself safe now that he was back in the U.S.A., would come to the shocking realization that the creepy old Dutch writer was his Creator after all!
Oh, and wait: the novel would end with me celebrating my official return to normalcy with Psychology 713, out behind the tool shed. As those of you familiar with the horror genre know, having sex is the equivalent of signing your own death warrant.
If only! If only the wings of my imagination could undo what I’ve done. But there’s no escaping the truth now. I killed Full o’ Bull, and there is no way around it.
Damn. I just tried calling Linda and got a “number you have dialled is not in service” recording. But don’t worry, folks. There has to be some logical explanation. It might just be the mountains that they have up here, distorting the signal. Or maybe the server’s down. Heightened sunspot activity? A Russian hacker? It could be anything. Except Full o’ Bull.
Hang on. This afternoon, while undergoing a full body detox treatment with Dead Sea clay – have you ever tried that? It’s great! – I left my smartphone lying on a ledge where it was quite steamy. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m sure everything will be fine by tomorrow.
Whoa, folks. Was that a knock on my door? Who could that be, at this hour? Yep. That was another knock, louder and more urgent this time. Fuck. Now I’m beginning to freak out. Wake Full o’ Bull with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!
“Come in,” I just heard myself saying, in a choked voice.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the door began to open.
No. It wasn’t Full o’ Bull, returned from the dead as a zombie, with the knife still stuck in his neck, coming to offer me a plate of food, which of course would be teeming with maggots.
Sorry folks. Wrong genre.
Wrong genre, wrong gender.
It’s my next-door neighbor, a young movie actress whose name I cannot reveal for reasons of privacy, in a terrycloth bathrobe and flip-flops. She has booked the hot tub on the rooftop terrace for the rest of the evening, and was wondering whether I would like to join her. It’s a perfect night for star-gazing, she claims.
For star-gazing, huh?
Among other things, yes.
She fancies me, this neighbor of mine, and no, that isn’t just wishful thinking on my part: the other evening, we were down in the lounge enjoying a hot chocolate by the open fire when she asked me flat out whether I wanted to spend the night with her.
I politely declined.
Not that she isn’t attractive. In fact, the way she’s leaning against the doorpost right now, watching me type this very sentence with a coy smile, I must admit that I’m tempted. The thing is, I’ve instructed myself to be a good boy, at least until the committee hearing tomorrow. We wouldn’t want to make Psychology 713 jealous, now, would we?
Then again… doesn’t my imminent return to normalcy call for a small advance celebration? Psychology 713 can wait until tomorrow. She even wants me to wait until tomorrow!
“Tell you what,” I instruct my visitor. “You go on ahead. I’ll join you as soon as I’ve finished writing this novel here.”
“Finished your novel, huh? That’s a good one. As if I’m going to be sitting in that tub for the next three months.”
“No, no. Just a few more lines and I’ll be done.”
“In that case, I’ll wait for you right here.”
“Suit yourself. As long as you don’t distract me.”
“Distract you? Now why would we want to do that?”
“We?” I said, looking up from my work. There was that funny little pronoun again.
Whoa. She’s turned around and gone scampering down the hall now, but did she just flash her boobs at me?
Sorry folks, I was hoping to end this novel on a philosophical note, but, uhm… I’m outta here!