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She took herself into a room where one wall had been replaced by glass, crisscrossed by wire.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 Power of Smell

As a toddler, most things that happen to you are in the daytime, with mothers being the likely fillers of later memory gaps – especially in the 1950s, when hands on mothering was encouraged. My mother was never a reliable witness though, due to her diminishing grasp on reality, so the caulking for this tale has been periodically provided by my brother.

I had just had my second birthday and Brubby was nearly ten: it was December, it was cold, and my mother was ironing in the only heated room of the house. We were with her. Brubby was up to some familiar and apparently annoying antic, causing our mother to shout at him. The sound made me jump and I lost my balance, putting my hand out for the nearest thing – the fireguard. Being the common type we had in those days, it was designed only to keep sparks from the room, it slipped away casting me into the fire.

My mother snatched me up and ran to a neighbour, whilst Brubby was left to fend for himself. It seems he had the presence of mind to unplug the iron, or things might have been worse. Perhaps he stayed to mind the house, or perhaps another neighbour took him in. Either way, he must have been worried about me and, perhaps, blamed himself for what had happened. By chance, my left hand landed high on the baffle-plate at the back of the fire, saving me from falling face down into the grate. The palm and fingers of my hand were, however, completely seared. Now, I don’t remember any of this, and most definitely don’t remember any pain although it must have been severe. I do, though, have an enduring memory of the months that followed.

I was rushed, by whatever means, for medical attention: probably from the District Nurse, who lived at the other end of the village. Certainly, it was she who regularly changed the dressings: a yellow square of camphor and lanolin soaked gauze, carefully taken from a flat metal tin, was placed onto the palm of my hand using tweezers; a layer of soft lint followed and a light binding of gauze held it in place. Then, I was tightly bandaged from the finger tips to the elbow, using thicker gauze bandages that had no give in them. This was to stop the air from getting in and me from flexing my hand. It must have worked well, because I remember not being able to play with my toys properly. I also have a vague recollection of one of Brubby’s long socks being used, to cover the bandage and keep it clean. I don’t think I minded, as I looked forward to seeing Nurse Ashby: I was captivated by her bright eyes and bouncy brown hair.  As she painstakingly dressed my hand, she kept smiling at me and then, one day, she gave me a present. It was a book. She had bought it especially; I thought she was lovely.

After a few weeks, the tight gauze bandage was exchanged for a crepe one and I was able to move my fingers, the tips of which now peeped out. They were pink and plump and shiny, like new born mice. I still couldn’t pick things up, but I was pleased: this bandage gave some room for me to sniff at the ointment soaked dressing. I loved that smell. In fact, I became so attached to it that, when the last dressing was removed, I cried and cried. I shouldn’t have worried, the smell had permeated my flesh; I slept happy, my hand to my nose, every night for weeks.

With no disfigurement and no mental scars from the incident, I have never blamed anybody. Why would I? The care was excellent and the action so prompt, I was saved from a skin graft; because I was so young the distinctive whorls returned to my finger ends and I have a lifeline as does everyone else. Of course, my mother said it was her fault; mothers blame themselves for lack of vigilance and beyond that I thought she meant because she’d yelled. Years later, though, she said it had been done to punish her. Why she thought she might be punished, and by whom, was not then clear.

For a long time there’ve been more modern ways for treating burns but, just sometimes, I’ve caught the smell again – it always triggers visual flashes of Nurse Ashby, and a feeling of being content. How lucky!

Where it all began

early days at school
early days at school

I began life in rural Oxfordshire: in a village of both political and religious dissent; a place that harboured secrets and where tales of witchcraft still whispered in the walls. Within that context, I was nomadic from the age of two.  

My mother suffered from serious mental health issues and, although her mother (Nanna) was drafted in to fill the mothering space, I was determined to be free range. Family time and energies were caught up with other things and, with a close village community, my wanderings rarely caused concern.

Perhaps it was the notion of things not being right at home that lead people to take me in, or perhaps I was an enchanting child. Whatever the reason, I walked through open doors and many that were normally closed. I was welcomed at tables where others feared to go and it is that broad church of experience, that began to carve the person that is me.