Divided

I was four when my mother, detained under ‘The Mental Health Act’, was taken to a secure facility for the insane. My brother was eleven. Nanna, who already lived with us, seemed to think it was our fault so I was sorry I’d ever been naughty. Routines continued as usual and we were fed and clothed at least.

My mother’s absence was almost total for two years, but one Christmas we were told there would be a visit home. Dad explained she would feel strange and that we shouldn’t be too forward with her. I worried. What did our mother look like? Would she remember us?

The visit was to see how she coped. She didn’t. She didn’t even look at me and when we were left together for a few minutes she started fumbling at the things on the sideboard, and making funny noises in her throat. Then, with a dash, she ran from the house screaming we were trying to kill her. She was wrong, but I could see she was scared. She ran to a neighbour’s. I followed, then went back for Dad. The ambulance took her from there.

Sometime afterwards, my brother was taken to see her at the asylum; a mistake Dad never spoke of, nor repeated. I was saved that trauma.

Later yet, when a combination of new drugs promised to tame her, our mother was moved to what Nanna called ‘a new-fangled clinic’. It was the early 1960s, I was eight and we had hope.

One evening after tea, Dad drove us in the old blue Austin Cambridge, to where our mother now stayed. The building lay hidden from the road, behind dark trees, but the twin entrance and exit gateways spoke of grandeur. He pulled the car into the crescent drive and there stood The Elms: Victorian, austere, huge. Bay-windows threatened from either side of the wide front door. Lights blazed from them in defiance: one room revealing perhaps forty community chairs pressed against its bare walls. Two ornate ceiling-roses seemed mocked, by lengths of dark flex from which dangled bare light-bulbs. The room was soulless with no people.

We waited on the stone steps, the sound of the doorbell echoing into the house. Then the door, heavy on its hinges, swung smoothly open and we were ushered in.

The grey haired nurse said, ‘I’ll tell the doctor you’re here,’ her starched uniform billowing as she walked away, and the sound of her shoes loud in the silence.

She took herself into a room where one wall had been replaced by glass, crisscrossed by wire. It reminded me of the cage I had for my rabbit. Everything here was strange.

The nurse had gone through, and beyond, another glass partition that led to an office. I could see two men there, in grey suits. One was seated and smoking a pipe, the other leaning towards him hands resting on a paper-ridden desk. They were talking and kept on doing so, despite the nurse’s presence. Book shelves flanked an unused fireplace.

Dad was sharp: ‘Don’t stare,’ he said.

I was sure he spoke more to Nanna than us, she was the nosy one, but I took his cue and looked down. The black and white hall tiles had been set diamond-fashion, so they looked more sophisticated and less like a chess board. My feet fitted perfectly across each diagonal and I couldn’t resist a few hops to scotch my boredom: whispering, ‘Don’t step on the cracks, or the devil will get you,’ as I jumped.

Nanna grabbed my arm saying, ‘Stop that,’ and I was made to stand still like my brother.

Brubby stood, in his school cap and gabardine mac, moving sometimes to pull up one of his long grey socks. He had new school shoes, but I still wore my summer ones that had little three-petalled patterns and dots cut out from the white leather. My socks were long ones too, but white with patterns knitted into the nylon. They were not as warm as my brother’s. I wore a blue serge skirt with straps that went under my jumper and which stopped it from slipping beyond my waist. That was Nanna’s idea. I looked around.

The hall was large, in keeping with the house, and a wide staircase with a curved wooden banister rose from it. You could smell the warmth of the beeswax someone had used to make the wood gleam. I wondered if my brother wanted to slide down it like I did. He was probably too grown up, so I pushed the idea away and imagined walking elegantly down the stairs instead. I would be wearing a long silk dress, which would swish against the gloriously carved newel-post, attracting the attention of guests at a summer ball. I was prone to make believe. Dad encouraged it, but Nanna didn’t approve of things that weren’t true – except when she told lies.

I looked beyond the stairs, where chipped cream paintwork sat in contrast. There were two doors firmly closed: one to the room we’d seen from outside and the other, further into the hall, on the right. I could hear voices murmuring from behind it.

Tugging Dad’s sleeve, I asked, ‘Is my Mum in there?’

‘Perhaps,’ he said, and left it at that. He looked tired.

Brubby pointed out a passageway just by the stairs. He was a few steps forward, so I joined him to see. There was a faint whiff of boiled cabbage. I wrinkled my nose at him. He nodded, doing it back.

Just down the passage, and set back, was a second stair, parallel to the main staircase and divided from it by a wall. This stair was narrow though, with no carpet. I was about to ask why it was there, when a man from the glass room appeared. He’d put on a white coat, but hadn’t bothered to do it up. I couldn’t remember if he was the one with the pipe, or the other one, but it hardly mattered.

‘Mr. __________?’ he asked.

He opened the door to the first room, the one with the chairs. It was cold in there and we weren’t invited to sit. I was glad because the chairs had no arms or homely cushions and I didn’t like their clashing colours: red and orange, grey and aquamarine, all mixed up one next to another. It was horrid.

Discounting us entirely, the man spoke only to Dad. He said he was a psychiatrist. He asked lots of questions and his tone was neither friendly nor respectful. I didn’t like him and I didn’t want to remember his name, so I didn’t fix it in my brain.

He asked, ‘Have there been others in the family with a nervous disposition?’

Dad said, ‘Not that I know of, but I assume you mean in her own family, not mine. Mrs _________ will know more about that.’

I was glad Dad was being snooty too, but it seemed strange to hear him give Nanna’s proper name.

‘Is that important?’ Nanna asked, then added, ‘My father may have committed suicide.’

I looked at Brubby. This was new to us. Nanna never talked about her father except, sometimes, to say he’d been a fool. We listened quite agog.

‘He drowned in an eel pond,’ she said. ‘What happened wasn’t really clear, but he’d taken off his watch and clothes and no-one in their right mind would want to swim with eels. Would they?’

I thought that part would be right, so this might not be lies.

The psychiatrist made a note then said, ‘Current thinking suggests your wife’s condition is hereditary, Mr ___________.’

It was the second jolt of the evening. What was he thinking to say it out like that? He might be forgiven not knowing this eight year old girl had a strong vocabulary, but my brother was fourteen and would certainly know what he’d meant. There were four of us to hear it, but not one spoke of it again: each letting the implications fester on in us. Shame on that man.

Dad used his quiet voice to ask, ‘Can the children see their mother?’

The reply was matter of fact. ‘That won’t be possible. Your wife has had electric shock treatment and is now recovering. It would be better if you came back alone in a few days.’

I was worried. Electricity was dangerous and I didn’t like the thought of someone using it to shock my mother. And what did that mean? But I wasn’t in a position to challenge this man. I hated him. Not only was our hope removed, but fear had now been added.

(to be continued.)

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The Circle of Life

Besides a budgerigar, we always had a dog and fish, giving us a fair perspective on how life worked. At Hook Norton, where I came into the family, it was no different.

There, in a small glass tank, we had a goldfish with a fancy flowing tail, a pretty silver fish who glittered as he swam past and a black-velvet molly. The first of the fish to die was the molly. Its inner balance was lost and it was floating upside down, just below the water’s surface. It was struggling to get lower in the tank; the black veil-like tail moving pathetically in the water: we knew that black molly it was sick. Dad removed it incase it infected the others but, when placed in a separate bowl, it showed a fight for life and was duly returned to the tank. It seemed renewed – swimming strongly, round and round then down, to prove it. The next day it was dead.

These days such occurrences often end in an unceremonious flushing down the loo; back then we had no such facility. The village had just been connected to the local water system, but there was no mains sewage. We had guzzunders where a night-time wee could be had by the bed. For anything more, an expedition to the outside ‘facility’ was required. There, in the Modern Elsan Chemical Toilet, the family would sit to deposit their bodily waste. One at a time, of course.

There was no lid to our Elsan: my father said rats hearing humans try to hide, with a lid that would likely be in the toilet,  jumping out at you to escape when the lid was raised; on the other hand, with no lid they would simply scarper and not offend your sight – which was, of course, preferable. (I still baulk at toilet seats being down.)

These days, the village still has no mains sewerage, but tankers come regularly to empty the waste from underground repositories – the houses, now having the same flushing toilets found in other places. But in the 1950s we were expected to deal with it ourselves: once a fortnight, my father would dig a deep pit at the far end of our garden, as other householders did, and our banked-up deposits would be buried – adding nutrients to the soil.

My father was a keen gardener and produced much of our fruit and veg. He always said, ’You can’t get better than home grown rhubarb.’ then would chuckle at the anticipated joke:

‘How do you get such good flavour?’

‘Why, I put manure on it, of course.’

To which the imagined guest, represented by us, would chime: ’I prefer custard on mine.’

He had a great sense of humour and was always playing with language to create jokes for our amusement. If he heard a good joke it would be added to his repertoire and be repeated over several years.

But the death of a pet was no laughing matter and to cast our molly into the Elsan vat, where it would remain visible, was unthinkable. As it is, I have no recollection of how the disposal occurred but, knowing my father, its minute goodness would have been put to good use. Come to think of it, he always said how good fish blood was for tomatoes and roses – so perhaps a little of our molly has circled through life in other, more fragrant, forms between then and now.

The budgie Cheeky’s departure was more traditional, with a suitable box selected and a burial following. After the functional cardboard casket was interred, beneath one of the garden trees, a replacement bird was found. This one being less willing to talk. Our opening gambit, ’Who’s a cheeky boy then?’ eventually got either an ’Hello’ or a ’Pretty Boy’ response, and sometimes a whistle, but we had to work hard for it – while he weighed us up with his tilted head and cock-eyed stare. Sadly, Cheeky no. 2 never did become a fully integrated member of the family and he sealed the line, being the last of our budgies. The molly wasn’t replaced either; his erstwhile companions meeting their demise somewhere in transferral to the new house, when I was seven. We had fish, beyond this time but only when we compromised our parents by winning them at the fair. Those were endured with the expectation they were not long for this world. Our spaniels fared slightly better.