Sunhill Precinct, November 13, 1963
As the bus pulled into Sunhill the sun broke through the clouds and the asylum shone in a cold winter light. Isolated on a windswept heath, and surrounded by gorse and pines, the imperious grounds looked more like a stately home than a museum for the mad; the majestic brick façade glowed in the early morning rays and the sweeping lawns sparkled with hawfrost; the ornate rose beds were strewn with silver webs and crows lopped along the drive which glistened like a sequin gown. Maria gazed out the window and marvelled at the Light. Besides the sun, she sensed another hidden Light, pouring out Love upon the whole wide world. She felt that hidden Light; she felt its inexplicable effects bubbling up inside her like a dazzling spring of Life; visions that only the soul can comprehend; intuitions and convictions that the realm of spirit was a tangible reality penetrating the material world of sense. Like an extraneous power, it flooded in from beyond, and she felt herself to be an entirely new creature, sanctified by the grace and loveliness of God.
‘Isn’t it pretty?’
Maria turns to see a nurse sitting beside her; she has a sallow wrinkled face, with beady eyes and three hairy moles on her chain; her greying hair is neatly pined beneath a round blue hat, and her white apron is freshly pressed under her blue coat. Maria smiles politely:
‘I love frosty mornings, don’t you?’
‘You’re new here aren’t you?’
‘Does it show?’
‘Don’t worry love. It’s a big place, but you’ll soon get used to it. I’m sister Birkin.’
‘Maria Torris. Pleased to meet you. How long have you worked here?’
‘Oh, it’s coming on for twenty years now. It’s a standing joke round here that the number 7 bus goes to Sunhill, and if you’re daft enough, you get on it! There used to be a train service but it stopped running years ago—you can still see the platform over there, though them trees – ’
She points out the window where an old railway siding looms though the birch, covered with moss and ivy.
‘Of course, it was much quicker by train: it meant an extra half hour in bed for me. I do miss the train, especially on winter mornings. But perhaps it’s for the best…’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, there were accidents, you see: the patients kept throwing themselves on the line. They must have been very sad to do a thing like that. We try and provide a good standard of care, but some folk just can’t be helped. Both my parents worked at Sunhill: my mother, Dorothy, was a Ward Sister, and my father, Peter, was a nurse on the Isolation Ward. I don’t like going round there though: it’s got rats.’ She shudders. ‘My father saw a ghost there once. Well he didn’t actually see it—he felt it, more like.’
‘Yes. He was alone one night walking the main corridor—it’s a mile long, that corridor—between them two towers. Well, he stopped to light a cigarette, and he felt someone tap on his shoulder. But when he looked round, there was no one there. He ran out of there pretty damn quick, I can tell you!’
‘Have you ever seen a ghost?’
‘No, thank god. But I don’t work nights. It’s creepy enough in the day time. I know most of this hospital like the back of my hand, but there are still some places I won’t go—not unless I’m with a Trusty.
‘Trusty’s are not proper mental like, but they’re too addled to live outside. They make tea and serve up cakes, you know, that sort of thing. They can even go to the pub if they want…’
‘Last month three patients got out unattended. They went to the park and exposed themselves in front of some children. The police were called but it was a Trusty who brought them back… I’ve got two sons, both in the R.A.F. – Michael who’s twenty four and Edward who’s twenty-one this December.’
‘Do they fly?’
‘No, they’re engineers… They feed them well in the R.A.F., but they still miss my Sunday roasts! The kitchens serve up good food at Sunhill; we grow all our own vegetables. My brother was a gardener here and he always said the inmates ate better than him! Such lovely grounds, don’t you think?’
‘We’ve got a cricket pitch, a football pitch, tennis courts, bowling greens and a pond with geese and swans. Have you seen the swans?’
‘They’ve got clipped wings. Can you see that tall chimney over there? That’s the boiler room; my grandfather worked there before the first world war.’
‘Sunhill is a long tradition in your family.’
‘Oh yes. It’s been three generations now. My younger sister started here when she was a trainee nurse. She used to work nights, well – 4 on, 2 off – in 12 hour shifts. But she got left alone on the male wards at night. Let me tell you, that’s no place for a young girl; I mean, madmen running around naked, shouting and fighting into the small hours. She hated it. She emigrated to Australia last June. She works in a retirement home now; it’s very nice—she sent pictures—they’ve got a swimming pool and kangaroos. It’s the middle of Summer there, you know. I’m thinking of visiting but I don’t like flying. I lost my husband last March. He caught pneumonia in The Big Freeze. But if I’d told him once, I’d told him umpteen times: “Henry Birkin, button up that coat!” He never listened. He got caught in a blizzard coming back from the Spar. He suffered terrible frost bite: lost his nose and fingers. He only went out for a loaf of bread.’
‘How dreadful. I’m so sorry to hear that.’
‘He’s in a better place now.’
‘Yes, of course. Which ward do you work on?’
‘Oh, I look after the old folk on ward 18. “Lifers” we call them. Most are completely ga-ga. There’s a woman on my ward who’s been here sixty-five years. Her “mental aberration” was having a child out of wedlock. She’s completely institutionalised now. But the oldest patient in Sunhill is Jeremy Hall; he’s been here seventy-two years—ever since he was thirteen.’
‘Yes, I know. He’s eighty-five now.’
‘What did he do?’
‘He was committed for throwing stones at a priest; he hit the congregation as they were leaving church. When they caught him he just laughed. It seems such a silly thing to get locked up for. A young lad like that. If he wasn’t mad when he arrived, he is now… Poor old Jeremy: he’s got a face only a mother could love—or as we say in Lanky—“Thes getten a face leyk a bulldog chompin a wassap!” She giggles. ‘So what are you then? A secretary?’
‘No. I’m taking over from doctor Hardy.’
Her jaw drops:
‘You’re a doctor?’
‘Yes, that’s right. A psychiatrist.’
The nurse looks absolutely mortified and her lips begin to tremble:
‘Oh, forgive me. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were a psychiatrist. Have I said too much?’
‘Not at all.’
‘A lady doctor. Well, I think that’s marvellous… Oh look, the bus is stopping. It’s been lovely talking with you. I hope you settle in all right. Good bye!’
The nurse springs from her seat and darts down the aisle as if to escape some penal diagnosis. Maria waits for the upper deck to clear as the staff vacate and clamber down the steps. The engine dies and a blast of icy air licks at her neck. Two men cast surly glances as they shuffle past in silence. The sky darkens. It starts to snow. Maria doesn’t move, but sits alone amid the empty tartan seats. She gazes through the tumbling flakes, toward the dark tower where she first encountered the Light. And she wonders what will become of Jacques Vallin.
The bell rings and the conductor cries:
‘Loony Bin! Any more upstairs?’
She’s in half a mind to stay put. How easy it would be to return to Preston. She need never set foot in that unhallowed place again. The building unnerves her; despite its stately exterior, an ominous menace hangs over the parapets. She knows the gentile façade hides a multitude of hells; secret theatres, hidden away from prying eyes, where Pontius carves puppets out of men. The asylum seems to engulf her. Must she dwell in limbo with all those restless souls who wander that labyrinth of never ending corridors? She has an irrepressible urge to flee. It was a mistake coming North. She could catch the train back to Euston this very afternoon. How she missed Putney! She didn’t belong here; she stuck out like sore thumb. All the other doctors were devout atheists, and nothing she might do or say would ever convince them of a spiritual reality. It was a fool’s errand to even try. Why did she renounce her vows? How she pined for her convent sisters! To sing mass and take the body of Christ! But she had chosen the World over the cloister, and Mother Superior would never take her back.
The engine revs, the brakes hiss, and the wheels crunch up the gravel drive. The view begins to slide past the window. Maria grits her teeth, grabs her case, and swoops out the bus like a bird. Within seconds she’s running up the asylum steps and into the main entrance.
She wasn’t a quitter. One way or another, she would save Jacques Vallin…