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Inside the Chamber of Secrets

A radioactive journey

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘If you could see it,’ the nuclear physicist said, ‘it would be 20 feet of brilliant light emanating all around you, like the sun. If someone stays within a metre of you for an hour, they will be contaminated with more radiation than they are safe to receive in a whole month.’

‘What would happen if one of the nurses got into bed and spent the night with me?’

Robert shouted with laughter and reeled backwards along the corridor, all six foot six of him, then asked if he could repeat that on the ward. Sorry, he added. Years of working with nuclear medicine had turned him crazy, made him love bad jokes. Which is a good thing because you need a few jokes in Ward 6 North.

The ward entrance has a black and yellow radiation hazard sign — the trefoil that could be a skull. You have to be buzzed in. Robert reassures me that he’s worked on this ward for 20 years, and he doesn’t glow in the dark. He even has a girlfriend. The mood is hushed, almost reverent.

My room has steel walls because lead is too soft to stay upright in a wall. I don’t go in yet because it’s still to be cleaned after the previous incumbent. I don’t like to stare — it seems voyeuristic. Looks like a hasty departure though, get me out of here, runkled sheets, discarded possessions. A toothbrush. Blue plastic gloves still bearing the shape of the wearer’s hands. Perhaps he or she hasn’t really gone. Perhaps they are still in there, hands still in gloves, and instead of glowing like the sun they’ve been rendered invisible. Who knows what can happen when you swallow ionising radiation?

When time’s up I enter through an outer door, then an inner door, both lead. I don’t know what’s going to happen next – I’m full of dread and excitement – but I do know that I will be incarcerated here for three or four days. Throughout that time no one will come in, and I will not leave. A lead screen is wheeled across the inner door behind me. This is to protect the nurses from radioactivity; over the top of it they will deliver food and drinks. Screwed to it is a list: caesium, gold seeds, iridium wire, iodine-131. It sounds as beautiful and mysterious as an inventory of Aladdin’s cave. It connects to the arcane medical procedures that go on in this room.

It strikes me that by crossing this threshold, I embody much about the way most people write. We travel through portals from one world to another. We travel from reality to the imagination, daily life to dreams, outer to inner. In her wonderfully titled memoir Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson describes the threshold as a mythic space. ‘To cross the threshold is to enter another world — whether the one on the inside or the one on the outside.’ Narnia, she writes, ‘is through a door in a wardrobe.’

Travel has inspired most of my writing. As Nikos Kazantzakis wrote in his prologue to Zorba the Greek, ‘Throughout my life my greatest benefactors have been my dreams and my travels’. Watching a corpse being dismembered outside Lhasa and fed to vultures. Dancing with the dead at Malagasy famadihana, parties to propitiate people’s exhumed ancestors. Tracing a ‘disappeared’ friend to the Romanian gulag where he was murdered by Ceausescu’s brutal regime.

Recently I visited unmarked graves, like roadworks, of illegal immigrants who drowned while crossing the Turkish border into Greece. A Greek imam has decided to give decent burials to these nameless refugees; he guesses from their skin colour that they might be Muslim. Their families will never know what became of them. I return through the wardrobe, through the lead doors, with stories which I offer you — not a gift exactly, but something for you to take or leave, as you wish. If you take it, you enter my room, and I enter yours.

A morbid-seeming fascination with death is just my present preoccupation. Under different circumstances I would mention not Tibet’s sky burial, but the cliff walls of the Potala Palace. Not George’s death in Romania, but the nunnery where I taught Romanian novices English folksongs. Not drowned refugees, but a Pomak wedding in the Rhodope Mountains, the Muslim groom returning to his job as a bus driver in Peckham. It’s the opposite of a death-obsession: more that sense of feeling most alive when exploring worlds other than one’s own. And only when feeling alive am I inspired to write. There’s a surge of energy, a need to reach for the notebook before first impressions fade. Every cell wakes up. Excitement underpinned by dread. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you’re open to it. Jeanette Winterson goes on: ‘…we can never be really sure what is on the other side of the door until we open it.’

I’m inspired to write now, get this experience down before it becomes another recycled anecdote, the true experience moulded into a more amusing shape.

Robert wheels in a trolley bearing geiger counters like hand-held vacuum cleaners, and a lead pot the dimensions of a Dijon mustard jar. The iodine-131 capsule is inside. I imagine it vibrating, trying to get out. It was ordered from a lab in Germany, and transported in a radiation-proof container.

‘Are you ready?’


Robert unscrews the jar, inserts a funnel which plucks the capsule, an inoffensive bean, and hands it to me. I am about to swallow what is effectively a nuclear bomb.

We often don’t know what’s going to happen next in our writing. We go through the writing process putting one word in front of another – as I put one foot in front of another to enter this room, or as I tip iodine-131 into my mouth – without knowing how it is going to turn out. It takes courage.

Afterwards I lie there and go inwards, visualising malignant cells sucking up the radioactive iodine. Beyond describing the exotic, albeit in Hammersmith, I like to slip, in my writing, from outer (observation) to inner (how we think and feel). That’s how it is in life. We examine the world, zoom off on a thought train, then re-surface. We see the computer screen, then disappear into the world of amorphous words. Landscape/detail, summary/scene, macro/micro, informative/personal, tame/wild. It’s not a binary formula, or even something I do consciously. It’s like breathing — in and out. I love the rhythm that creates.

In the opening of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller switches from two sisters’ dialogue about needing a nighttime pee to scorpion catching, back to the pee, to the scents of an African night, to the pee, to Mum’s magazine and back to peeing again. It’s a dance, and you never know where you’re going to be swung next. There’s an element of risk. You might fall or get swung right out of the room. A writer needs confidence to carry it off.

I wish it was visible, my aura. I don’t read. I’m calm, relieved the worst is over — the swallowing moment. After the initial radioactive burst has died down, Robert returns, remaining strictly behind the lead screen, to measure how far the rays emanate. He will do this daily to establish when I’m safe to leave. I lie under a black neon-style tube in the ceiling while he fiddles with dials between inner and outer door.

‘Enjoy your stay in this comfortable hotel,’ he says breezily. ‘How do you feel?’


Helena Drysdale is the author of several works of travel and history, including Mother Tongues and Strangerland. She lives in Somerset.

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