Court Transcript

KREW. I have oft’ purposed to leave behind a faithful record of all that I know about the spirit world, and my wondrous sojourns into the realms of Light and Darkness. But alas, I fear that modern man is so demoralized by the degrading theories of materialism, that none on Earth would believe my testimony. Perhaps their learned doctors would certify me insane and lock me in an asylum. Which brings me to the problem of medical materialism…

Medical materialists ascribe all diseases to the work of pathogens and microbes; but they err in this respect, for all physical processes have their first cause in the realm of Spirit, where the constituent parts of matter are born. ’Tis a well known fact, held by ancient physicians of high repute, that we Diamons can effect miraculous cures and inflict diseases. Indeed, many sicknesses that modern man deems natural, have a supernatural origin. This is especially true of lunatics, for the source of mental disturbance is usually diabolical. Materialists believe that lunacy is caused by dysfunction of the brain. Whilst this may be true in most cases, there are certain maladies that do not have an organic cause, but are the result of demonic possession. The secularists will scoff at my claims, but that is because they have forgotten three important truths…

The first truth is that Matter is Mind. Both Mind and Matter are one and the same substance. This is the Unus Mundus of the ancients. The second truth is that Man is a fallen creature. When Man dwelt in the Light of Heaven, he possessed great spiritual powers. Alas, after the Fall, most of these powers were lost, and in the modern age, they are only present in a weakened unconscious state. The third truth, is that the soul, when separated from the body, can achieve miraculous feats that would otherwise be impossible. I speak of bi-location, prophecy, flight, and the power over Time and Space. And if the court will permit, I will illustrate my case, by recounting the tale of The Madman’s Portal…

Late one evening, (in the far flung future), I had retired to my cave, having eaten a tasty supper of fresh acanthus leaves. Whilst sitting in my crystal chair, I was musing on a variety of subjects, (theological, metaphysical, and moral), when I began to ponder on the supernatural life of the soul and its perilous condition after death. Aquinas states that souls illumined by spiritual truth have a greater fitness for luminous bodies; but those souls darkened by sin, are fit only for dark bodies. But truly, the Light of Heaven is a fire, in as much as the fires of Purgatory and Hell. Thus a soul will experience either painful or joyous impressions, according to its volitional love of God. For God is eternally present in every sphere…

I was thinking upon the glory of this truth, when I was interrupted by a terrible hullabaloo coming from the surface. I knew at once the source of the sound: ’twas The Garden of Earthly Delights…

Sunhill Asylum, November 14, 1963

Harold Hall is a pitiful specimen of humanity – an emaciated geriatric with club feet and withered limbs. Bed-bound for twenty years, his ligaments have tightened like bowstrings, warping his arms and legs. He has the semblance of a mandrake root pulled fresh from the earth, with a dirty wrinkled face and wispy grey hair.

Nurse Stiles attends at his bedside, rubbing him down with a flannel, briskly mopping his armpits and chest:

‘Mucky lad. An’ what did thee do last neet? Go down pit? Thar’s black as coal!’

He mutters:

‘Stop moitherin’ mi.’

She daubs his mouth then bids:

‘Roll over.’

He whimpers as she manhandles his hips and thrusts him onto his side. A nauseating stench wafts from mattress. She gags and buries her nose in her sleeve. A tide of resentment swells within her breast. Two years out of school and she was nothing but a skivvy for incontinent loonies. She’s in half a mind to walk out the door. But she clouts him round the ear instead:

‘Dirty pig! If I’ve told thi once, I’ve told thi umpteen times! Ask for the potty!’

He sobs with shame:

‘Ah’ve ben getten’ t bellywarch. I were thrutchin’ fer ages but nowt came.’

She pulls back the sheet which peels from his buttocks in tarry brown clumps:

‘Disgusting!’

‘It’s not my fault! Ah’ve got the runs, thi knows!’

She clouts him again:

‘Shut yer cake ’ole.’

Stiles snaps on some latex gloves and unties his gown, exposing his back to the morning sun. His spine is covered in weeping sores and runnels of puss ooze between his ribs. A lumber canker has eaten to the bone, ringed by blisters and welts. She takes a pad of tow (a course green lint), and starts scouring out the wound. Harold howls in agony:

‘Oh! Mercy! Mercy!’

But Stiles shows neither pity nor remorse and scrubs even harder, executing her duty with hateful spleen:

‘You’re a filthy bugger you are, Harold Hall. You stink like rotten eggs. You think I like cleaning your mucky sores? I should put you in the Dolly Tub with a bar of Sunlight soap. And stop that howling or you’ll get a cold bath…’

‘Mercy! She’s tearing me to pieces!’

The tow cuts deep, shredding the skin and grating long bloody furrows. Stiles holds her breath and scrubs even harder; the bed begins to creak and shake, knocking the cabinet where a glass of false teeth lurches to and fro. Harold wails like a wolf, his arthritic paws clenched above his head, his thumbs tucked inside his fists. He begs and bawls, sputum spluttering from his lips in green flecks. And in his morbid throws, he resembles some victim of ancient Pompeii, swallowed by a pyroclastic flow.

When the sore runs clear, Stiles dunks her hand in a tin of emollient and slaps it on the wound:

‘There. All finished. That wasn’t so bad was it?’

He stutters with grief:

‘N… N… Nurse hurt me!’

‘Hurt you? Don’t be so soft. And stop the waterworks, or ah’ll gi thi some clog toe pie!’

He blubbers like a child:

‘I’ll tell Sister on you!’

‘Tell her all you like. See if I care.’

Beyond his bed are twenty other patients, dozing like scarecrows, drugged up to the eyeballs and barely conscious of their surroundings.

‘I’m dying!’ cries Harold. ‘Dying!’

Stiles rolls him back onto the mattress then wipes her hands on her apron:

‘What’s that Harold? Did thi say summat? Art thi tawkin’ ter me or chewin’ a brick? I can’t understand a word of it… Thaz a face lahk a constipated bloodhound! Now then, whose next?’

Just then, Sister Birkin pokes her head round the office door.

‘What’s all that noise?’

Stiles jumps:

‘Oh! Sister! I thought you were on tea break.’

‘What on earth is going on? I’ve never heard such a commotion!’

‘Well, it’s Harold Hall sister.’

‘Harold Hall? What did you do him?’

‘Nowt sister.’

‘Nowt? It didn’t sound like nowt.’

‘Well he’s reet obstrocolus.’

‘You mean obstreperous.’

‘Yes sister. He’s a bully.’

‘A bully? Old Harold? Don’t be daft. He couldn’t knock t’skin off a rice puddin’. What did you do to him?’

‘Well, it’s his bed sores, sister – the big un on his spine – it’s running like a sewer.’

‘Have you dressed it?’

‘Well, I’ve cleaned it out sister – with tow; but it’s made a right mess. Look at mi tunic!’

‘I can see that. What about the wound? Did you dress it?’

‘No sister.’

‘Why not?’

‘I forgot the bandages, sister.’

‘Forgot the bandages?’

‘Yes sister.’

‘You’d forget that head of yours, if it weren’t screwed on. Th’art as much use as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking contest!’

‘Sorry sister.’

‘It’s no good apologising to me now, is it?

‘No sister.’

‘You’re bone idle and incompetent, Stiles. What are you?

‘Bone idle and incompetent, sister.’

‘And you’ve got a cruel streak.’

‘Cruel? I don’t know what you mean.’

‘You must think I was born yesterday. Assaulting poor old Harold like that. What’s he ever done to thee?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Exactly.’

‘He’s shit the bed again sister.’

‘Well, you’ll just have to clean it up again, won’t you?’

‘But sister –’

‘No “buts”. Who’ll look after you when you’re old and incontinent?’

‘Don’t know sister.’

‘Exactly. None of us do. So you’d better start praying.’

‘Praying, sister?’

‘Pray that you don’t end up like Harold Hall, with a cruel nurse who mistreats you every day.’

‘Yes sister.’

‘Right. Now go an’ fetch them dressings. And be quick about it: we’ve got the enemas to do.’

Stiles wrings her hands and her face draws pale:

‘But sister, I did the enemas last week.’

‘What of it?’

‘Well, it’s Berry’s turn to do the enemas.’

‘Nurse Berry is off sick. So you’ll just have to get on with it by yourself.’

Stiles stamps her foot and cries:

‘Oh! I won’t! I won’t do it again! I won’t!’

‘Well, upon my soul! What kind of nurse are you? Throwing a tantrum like a spoilt child!’

‘Enemas! Oh please sister, not again! I hate doing the enemas. It makes me sick!’

‘I’ve been doing enemas for twenty years. You’ll get used to it soon enough. Stop blubbering and pull yourself together. What a fuss about nothing. You daft apeth!’

‘I can’t do the enemas again. I’ll puke, I will. I haven’t got the stomach for it.’

‘Do you want this job or not?’

Stiles sulks and sticks out her bottom lip. Birkin cocks an eyebrow

‘Well Stiles? Do you or don’t you? Perhaps I should show you the main gate?’

‘Oh no! Please sister, don’t sack us!’

‘Bread and rent. Now there’s some food for thought.’

‘Yes sister. Sorry sister.’

‘Very well. Calm down. We’ll do the enemas together. All right?’

‘Yes sister.’

‘Well then, don’t just stand there like cheese at fourpence; go an’ fetch them dressings: we haven’t got all day.’

Distraught, Stiles lets out a faint whimper and runs off through the swinging doors. Moments later, Sister Birkin emerges from her office pushing a trolley of bedpans, towels, and coils of rubber tubing. A sallow man in stripped pyjamas cries from his bed:

‘Don’t look now! Here comes Medusa with her arse pipe!’

‘That’s enough from you, Tommy Perry! It’s Thursday, and you know what happens on Thursday: it’s enema day.’

‘I don’t need a ruddy enema.’

‘Well you’re getting one, whether you like it or not.’

‘Fuck off, you old cow. Come near me with that rubber pipe, and I’ll stuff it down your gob!’

‘Shall I call Doctor Pontius? Perhaps you’d like some therapy first?’

Tommy scowls and mutters:

‘Evil bitch.’

‘I heard that!’

‘I’d get better treatment at the veterinary! It makes no sense. What’s the point in giving me a bloody enema? I haven’t had a bite to eat for two days. Look at me: I’m skin and bone.’

‘You know the routine: enemas on Thursdays, nails on Fridays, and baths on Sundays.’

Tommy chuckles:

‘Ee by gum; stick a banger up yer bum; when it’s lit, do yer shit, ee by gum.’

‘Don’t be crude,’ chides Birkin.

‘It’s funny though, int it?’

‘No Tommy, it’s not. It’s childish and rude.’

He glowers:

‘Miserable old cow. I shouldn’t be in this bloody ward. I’m fifty-six. That hardy makes me a geriatric, does it? I’m bored out of my skull in ’ere. I’ve got no one to talk to.’

‘Read a book.’

‘Read a book? I can’t read – not since doctor Frankenstein zapped my brains. Just my sodding luck to end up in the funny farm. I’m as sane as the next man. Do I look like a nut-job? Eh? Who says I’m nuts, anyway? That’s what I’d like to know. And how did they reach the diagnosis? Well, they’ve made a mistake; got me muddled up with someone else. I shouldn’t wonder: this place is a bloody shambles. Half the nurses don’t know their arse from their elbow. It’s a disgrace how they treat people in here. Where are my records? I demand to see them.’

‘You can’t see them.’

‘Can’t see them? Why not?’

‘They’re confidential.’

‘Confidential my arse. They’re my records aren’t they? I’ve got a right to see them. Who runs this place? The friggin’ Stasi? Why was I committed? Who certified me? I demand to know. I’ve got rights – human rights. What did I do wrong? Eh? Why are you holding me here? Eh? I’m a qualified electrician, tha knows! Qualified. I know my Ohm’s law. I’ve wired half the houses in Preston – and the public library. Eh? I want to return to work. And whilst we’re about it, the wiring in this place does not conform to current regulations. You’ve got four spurs coming off that socket. That’s a fire risk. Fatal. Listen, do I look mad to you? Eh? I’ve still got my wits, haven’t I? I demand to be released. I shall go to the Superintendent. Make my case. He’ll understand. I’m a decent enough type. There’s been an official error; an administrative cock-up. I’m not a loony, I tell you. Sister, are you listening to me? Sister!’

‘I’m listening. But I’ve heard it all before Tommy. You’re sane and the doctors are all mad. Is that it?’

‘You took the words right out of my mouth. Take Doctor Pontius for example. Mad as a bleedin’ Hatter. He thinks I’m a manic depressive. Do I look depressed to you? Eh? I mean, it’s a very relative thing, sanity is.’

‘Clam down. You’re getting hysterical.’

‘You’d be hysterical if you were locked up in here twenty four seven. Just look at me: I’m all spun up an’ stuck fer bobbins! Like I said, I’m a qualified electrician. Qualified… V equals IR. That’s Volts equals Amps times Resistance. See! My wits are sound. Perfectly sound. Eh? I’m not like that lot over there. Just look at ’em! Doolallipop! They don’t say or do owt all day long. I mean, what’s the point in being alive? Pray I drop dead before I end up like that! Vegetables! They’re bloody cuckoo, not me. Christ! Have you ever seen such a bunch of wretched old tossers!’

‘Less of the language.’

‘Or what?’

‘Or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap an’ water.’

‘Ilse Koch.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Ilse Koch, I said.’

‘Ilse who?’

‘You know: Ilse Koch’

‘Never heard of her.’

‘The Bitch of Buchenwald. I think you must be related. And keep out of my corner. This is my corner.’

‘No Tommy, this is not your corner.’

‘Yet it is. I bought it.’

‘Bought it? Don’t be so daft.’

‘I did. I paid good money for it.’

‘Oh? And who did you by it from?’

‘Liberace.’

Birkin hoots with mirth:

‘Liberace! Oh! Listen to him! Liberace he says!’

‘I did so. And Liberace said it was my corner.’

‘Oh did he now? Well, do you see that corner over there—the one with the glass window and the telephone? That’s my corner, and that’s my telephone. And if you don’t behave, I’ll go to my corner, pick up my telephone, and ask for doctor Pontius. Then he’ll take you away to his corner. And you know what happens there, don’t you?’

Tommy falls silent as Birkin pulls back the bedsheets, rolls him on his side and yanks down his pyjamas.

‘You like my buttocks, don’t you sister?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Liar. You can’t get enough of them.’

‘Don’t so be cheeky.’

‘They are cheeky aren’t they? Very cheeky. They’re the finest pair of cheeks in Sunhill, my buttocks are.’

‘Stop clenching.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Yes you are. Stop clenching. Let me apply the jelly. You needn’t be ashamed. I’ve seen it all in my time. Come on now, just relax.’

‘I am relaxed. Get on with it, would you? Oooh! That’s bloody freezing!’

Sister Birkin is about to insert the rubber tube when a knock comes at the door. She turns to see Maria standing in the threshold:

‘Sister Birkin. Can I have a word?’

‘Doctor Torris? What is it? How can I help you?’

‘It’s urgent. I must speak with you. Right away.’

Tommy sighs with relief as Birkin puts down the tube and walks to the door. Then he cries:

‘Saved by an angel! Praise God in heaven!’

He pulls up his pyjamas, ducks under the blanket, then peeks over the hem. Birkin looks Maria up and down and asks:

‘What brings you here?’

‘I need your help.’

‘My help?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can’t it wait? I’m up to my eyes in it here. Two of my nurses are off with a cold, and Stiles has just thrown a wobbly. Well?’

‘I’m dreadfully sorry, sister. But can you show me the basement?’

‘The basement? Whatever for?’

‘I’m looking for some old records on a patient of mine. Jack Vallis. Have you heard of him?’

A pause, then she nods:

‘Yes. I’ve heard of him. The Parisian Lady. You can’t work at Sunhill and not know about Jack Vallis. He used to give readings in the canteen. He’s psychic you know – well, if you believe in that sort of thing.’

‘But I do believe Sister Birkin. Don’t you?’

Birkin thinks carefully before answering. The long years of working with psychiatrists has taught her to keep quiet on spiritual matters. For she once knew a nurse who blabbed about seeing ghosts in the corridor; not long after she was given E.C.T. and became a full-time patient. Doctor Torris looks earnest enough, but can she be trusted?

Maria prompts her again:

‘Sister Birkin, I do believe in the spirit world. Please say that you do too.’

Birkin is reluctant to reveal her true colours. Then she spots the crucifix glinting through Maria’s blouse. That’s all the confirmation she needs; she steps closer and replies in a low whisper:

‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, I do believe. You see, Jack gave me a message from my late husband.’

‘Did he really?’

‘It was most peculiar. He knew exactly how he died – from frostbite and pneumonia.’

‘Jack has a great gift.’

‘He does indeed. Jack said my husband has been made whole again; his nose has grown back, and he’s got all his fingers. He’s not old neither: he’s young again, with all his hair, just like when we first met. He had such lovely hair. And Digger—our Cocker Spaniel—was there to meet him when he crossed over. Jack says everyone in Heaven is young – hardly a day over twenty. The Lord works in mysterious ways.’

As if Hell has just overheard, a raucous cry echoes up the passage:

‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’

Then:

‘His blood be on us, and on our children!’ [i]

A glissando of mad laughter follows, like the cackle of Kookaburras. There comes the sound of stomping feet, banging trays and rattling doors. Then all falls silent again. Birkin looks spooked and mutters:

‘I could swear some of them are possessed. Possessed I tell you.’

‘Who was that?’ asks Maria, concerned.

‘Crazy Larry. But he calls himself The Governor. He thinks he’s Pontius Pilate. He holds a mad gathering every morning. Patients come from all over the hospital to hear him speak. At the stroke of noon, without fail, they all cry “Crucify him!” Then Pilate washes his hands in a chamber pot and yells: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” I’ve never gotten used to it. Not in twenty years. It makes me shudder.’

Maria takes Birkin’s hand in hers:

‘Listen sister, you must help me. Jack’s in trouble. And so am I.’

‘What kind of trouble?’

‘I can’t explain. But I must get hold of these records. They’re in the basement. Doctor Hardy left instructions where to find them. If I don’t, Pontius is going lobotomise Jack this afternoon.’

Birkin pulls her hand away:

‘Oh, I see. Well, that’s terrible. I’m sorry about that. I’d like to help you doctor, really I would, but I can’t go down there. Not the basement.’

‘Why ever not?’

‘I’m not allowed. You need a yellow pass to work in the basement.’

‘If you could just show me the way, I’d be very grateful.’

‘But that’s just it: I don’t know the way. The basement is secret.’

‘Secret?’

‘It’s where they do the trials.’

Maria’s eyes widen in alarm:

‘Trials? Sister Birkin! You must help me! Please!

‘I can’t help you. But I know who can: my Trusty – David. He knows all about the basement. He was treated down there once. He works in the laundry now.’

‘David is your Trusty. But will he trust me?’

‘He will if I speak with him first.’

‘Will you sister? You’d be doing me and Jack a great service.’

Birkin checks her watch then says:

‘Very well. I can give you fifteen minutes. But no more. It’s enema day – and if I let Stiles loose on the wards alone, all hell will break loose. The last time she did the enemas, I came back to find the floor covered in number twos. You can’t get the staff nowadays. These young girls haven’t got a clue…’

Just then Stiles appears around the corner, her arms full of surgical dressings.

‘What took you so long?’ glares Birkin.

‘I got lost sister.’

‘Lost? Where did you go? The tuck shop?’

‘No sister.’

‘You can’t fool me Stiles: you’ve got chocolate all round your lips.’

‘I got accosted sister.’

‘Accosted?’

‘By Pontius Pilate – outside the drugs cupboard. He groped me all over. And he tried to kiss me. He’s rough as sandpaper. And poo! he stinks of drains!’

‘Did he feed you chocolate an’ all?’

Stiles looks ashamed, bows her head and mutters:

‘I can’t help it Sister. It’s my nerves. I always eat when I’m addled.’

Birkin bristles with self-importance:

‘Addled? I’ve been dealing with lunatics for twenty years. Do you think I go running to the tuck shop every time I get addled?’

‘No sister.’

‘That would be silly of me wouldn’t it?’

‘Yes sister.’

‘Because if I ate a bar of chocolate every time I got addled, I’d look like Fatty Arbuckle. Wouldn’t I?’

‘Yes sister. It won’t happen again sister. Anyway, he’s been sedated now.’

‘I sometimes wish I’d been sedated. Do you know why Stiles?’

‘No sister.’

‘Because whenever you’re on duty, there’s a calamity of one sort or another.’

‘Sorry sister.’

‘Now listen to me, I’m going away for fifteen minutes. I’ve got some important business with doctor Torris. Don’t start the enemas ’till I get back. Understand?’

Stiles flutters her eyelashes:

‘Yes sister.’

‘And wipe that chocolate from your mouth. You look like a schoolgirl not a nurse.’

Stiles fumbles with her bandages as she wipes a hand across her mouth. Then Birkin turns to Maria and says:

‘Right then doctor Torris. Let’s find David. The quickest way to the laundry is through the Dayroom. Follow me…’

Birkin strides off down the corridor, closely followed by Maria, their heels clopping on the linoleum which stretches away like a ribbon of ice. A gurney rattles toward them, driven by a porter with a ruddy face. A wizened crone squats naked on the mattress, haunches high, shoulders low, her face thrust forward like the figurehead on a ship; her grey hair hangs in tangles about her breasts as she raises a hand and cries:

‘Bow to me when I pass! Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Queen of Sheba!’

The porter rolls his eyes at the ceiling:

‘Yes, you’re the Queen of Sheba, and I’m Mickey Mouse. Lie back down Elsie, or you’ll fall off and get a shiner.’

‘I won’t lie down! Faster slave! I must be in Cairo by noon!’

‘If you don’t lie down, I’ll take you to see Pharaoh Pontius.’

The crone falls silent and crawls under the blanket. Birkin nods at the porter as they pass:

‘Good morning Jimmy.’

‘Hullo sister.’

‘Got your arms full?’

‘I’ll say. She’s a right live wire, this one is…’

He steers the gurney down a narrow passage as the crone squawks from under the sheets:

‘The Queen of Sheba! That’s who I am!’

Birkin quickens her pace and proceeds to a large blue door with an enamelled sign in red letters: DAYROOM.

Entering, Maria finds a colossal hall with a cold decrepit interior, surrounded by tall barred windows. The air stinks of incontinence and the parquet floor is littered with tampons and dirty knickers. She looks up, giddy at the cavernous vault which gapes like a dog’s mouth. The cyan distemper peels in blisters and blooms of brown fungus cascade from the cornice.

Perched by the door is an old woman dressed in nothing but a moth-eaten cardigan and a pair of Winceyette floral bloomers. She knits furiously with two fat needles, her face contorted in confusion.

‘Hello Betty,’ says Birkin. ‘Are you knitting a jumper?’

Betty grins like a simpleton and raises her needles. Her knitting hangs like noodles on chopsticks; there’s not a stitch in sight but Betty thinks she has created a masterpiece. Her ball of wool is a Gordian knot, tangled with leaves and dead flies. Betty drools and groans:

‘Knit one, pearl one.’

‘Oh that’s very pretty,’ replies Birkin. ‘What lovely work…’

Betty beams proudly and returns to her task, clicking the needles in fury, her tongue curled between her lips.

Crossing the hall, Birkin leads Maria past the French windows where two elderly women sit dejected on a wooden bench; they look completely resigned to their fate, with crossed legs and hands folded on their laps. They are manifestly ladies of high birth, and might be at a garden party, except both are shoeless with calloused heels and toes; their marbled legs are mottled with bruises and threaded with varicose veins. Both have been dressed from the communal pile of jumble; one wears a sleeveless floral dress three sizes too big, the other a tight gingham smock which quarters her bosom into lobes. Their flimsy attire offers little protection from the chill November air and their flabby arms are blue with cold. Maria stops to say “Hello” but the women look away with haunted eyes.

Then Maria spots a naked girl lying under the bench. She remains frozen, curled on her side, with her buttocks pressed against the wall. Her flesh has the semblance of paraffin wax, and the flanks of her thighs seem to hang off the bones. Pleats of skin hang about her groin and her shriveled breasts droop like the teats of a nanny goat. She might be some victim of Auschwitz, huddled in a mass grave, with her face buried in her arms. Her morbid pose makes an incongruous juxtaposition with the two ladies sitting above.

‘That’s Wendy’, says Birkin. ‘She spends all day like that; she crawls under there after breakfast and won’t come out ’till bed.’

‘But she’s naked,’ exclaims Maria. ‘Can’t you at least dress her?’

‘Oh, we’ve tried a thousand times, believe me. But whatever we put on, she just tears it all off again. Then she slithers back under there like a worm. That’s what they call her: Wendy Worm.’

‘But doesn’t she get cold, lying on a stone floor like that?’

‘Oh she’s happy enough. She feels safe there. She thinks the doctors can’t see her.’

Maria kneels down and cautiously holds out her hand as if approaching a wild beast:

‘Hello Wendy. My name’s Maria. Will you come out and talk with me?’

But Wendy begins to wail, pulling at her hair and snarling like a rabid dog. Maria totters back in shock, then stands in defense:

‘I was only being friendly.’

‘You mustn’t speak to her,’ chides Birkin. ‘And never hold out your hand. She’ll bite you. She thinks we’re all animals. That’s her cave, you see.’

‘She hallucinating.’

‘Yes. She sees animals in everything; she picks bats from the bed sheets and lions from the lino. You could write a fresh certificate for her every day.’

‘Does she eat well?’

‘As well as other patients.’

‘And what about sleep?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Hallucinations are exacerbated by an exhausted and undernourished cerebrum.’

‘I see. Well, I don’t work nights, so I couldn’t tell you. It’s best you leave her alone and come with me. We haven’t got time to dilly dally…’

But Maria remains rooted to the spot, transfixed by Wendy Worm who peers from the shadows. She finds the sight most disturbing, for it reminds her of a scene from Dante’s Hell where the poet enters a pathless wood with harpies lying naked amongst the trees.[ii]

Beyond the French windows a gardener is raking leaves under a giant oak, and high above, two red squirrels leap in the boughs. They seem a world apart from Wendy Worm, lost in her sepulchre of gloom.

About ten yards from the bench, Maria comes across a spastic girl who reclines in a wooden box on wheels; she has the expression of one who gazes at the sun, her face screwed up as if irradiated by an intense glare. She is attended by a slight woman with mousey brown hair who boasts:

‘I am providence. Do not touch me! I am omniscient! All powerful! All knowing! Away from me! Away!’

She pulls wild faces, puffing her cheeks and rolling her eyes with grim gesticulations. Then she stands erect and salutes in military fashion. She mocks Wendy Worm, flitting her tongue between her lips like a snake. Then she stops and begins reciting the twenty-third psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…

She stops again, spins on her toes, and continues with a music hall song:

Hold your hand out naughty boy!
Hold your hand out naughty boy!
Last night in the pale moonlight,
I saw you, I saw you!
With a nice girl in the Park,
You were strolling full of joy,
And you told her you’d never kissed a girl before,
Hold your hand out naughty boy!

She croons with laughter then scolds herself, slapping her wrists and face. She mutters something about pancakes and caws thrice like a crow, after which a deluge of nonsense streams forth from her lips:

‘I am Helios, the sun god! I am the most high, the most real, the realist, realist of all reality! The good life is only for the few. Ten fish swimming in a pond. One, two, three, four five, once I caught a fish alive; six, seven, eight nine ten, then I let it go again; why did you let it go? Because it bit my finger so! Which finger did it bite? This little finger on the right… The image of Christ is hurtful. Hurtful! They stole my babies. Have you read the lives of the saints? Why is my pudding always cold? I hate cold puddings. They make me sick. Especially tapioca. Slops. When will it be pancake day?’ Then to Maria: ‘When will it be pancake day?’

Maria smiles and says:

‘In about three months.’

‘Do you like pancakes?’

‘Yes, with lemon. Do you?’

‘Yes, with honey! Lots and lots of honey…’

She runs off shrieking then drops to the floor and curls in a ball. She pulls a rag doll from her cleavage and starts sucking her thumb, rocking back and forth. Then she shuts her eyes and is lost in reverie. She half remembers a copper sun that glimmers on half-remembered shores – a field of corn beside a rumbling mill, where the learned trout stalks the tarry fly, and the bulrushes whisper:

‘My love, my darling, my lovely…’

‘That’s Lizzie Sykes,’ says Birkin. ‘She had four stillbirths in a row, and then her husband ran off with another woman.’

Leaving the Dayroom, they pass through an iron gate then walk twenty yards down a broad corridor. The hubbub of the canteen echoes off the tiles and the stench of steamed sausage cloys the air.

‘We can take a short cut through the kitchens,’ explains Birkin. ‘Otherwise we have go right round the West Annex – and that takes a month of Sundays…’

As Birkin opens the canteen door her voice is drowned in a din of clanging cutlery. Some sixty women are scoffing and slurping as if it were their first square meal in months. Few can feed themselves at all, and finger their food like infants, dribbling down their bibs. A hairy hag broods by the door, her eyes fixed on a male nurse who paces the hall. She mutters curses, her lips curling in hatred, as he saunters past her table. When his back is turned, she hurls a potato and shrieks:

‘Rapist!’

The potato flies through the air and hits him on the head. Whereupon he turns and snarls:

‘Who threw that?’

The hag jumps up:

‘I did, you filthy beast! What you going to do about it?’

‘Wait until I get my hands on you!’

She flees down the aisle as the nurse takes up the chase, waving his truncheon:

‘I’ll have you!’

‘You ole tosser! Thi couldn’t catch a snail!’

There’s mad flurry as they weave about the tables, sending plates and cups flying in all directions.

‘It’s solitary for you, Mary Higgins!’

‘You pig! You filthy pig!’

He stalks her down an aisle and she backs away gibbering:

‘Stay away from me! You hear! I’m warning you! Stay away!’

She darts toward the serving hatch, grabs a bowl of pudding and growls:

‘Come any closer, an’ I’ll give thi an eye full!’

He steps toward her:

‘Put it down Mary, or I’ll lock you in the hole.’

At this, she hurls the pudding and cries:

‘Guttersnipe!’

The tin bowl strikes his head and a tide of tapioca rolls down his face. She pokes her tongue and gives him the finger:

‘Thaz a face lahk a blind cobbler’s thumb!’

Seething with fury, he claws the pudding from his eyes, snatches her wrists, then drags her kicking and screaming toward the exit. Birkin holds the door open wide and says:

‘That’s the third pudding this week, isn’t it Jimmy?’

‘Yes sister.’

‘He deserves it!’ spits Mary.

‘Shut it!’ snaps Jimmy. ‘You’re nothing but a troublemaker!’

Birkin looks Mary up and down, then tuts:

‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary. What ever are we going to do with you?’

‘Ah’ll snatch thi breath!’

‘She’s going in the hole, this one is!’ struggles Jimmy.

‘The hole?’ asks Maria. ‘Whatever do you mean?’

‘You stupid cow!’ cries Mary. ‘He means the hole. The hole. That’s where he likes to do it!’

He shakes her violently:

‘Shut it, you ole strumpet! ’

‘Respect yer elders! I’m old enough to be yer muther!’

‘You? My mother? Thank god for small graces!’

She spits in his face:

‘My belly’s too good for the likes of thee!’

He calls out:

‘Dobbs! Lend us a hand mate!’

Dobbs comes trotting down the aisle and clasps Mary by the shoulders whilst Jimmy locks her boots. Then Dobbs fetches a wheelchair as Mary is strapped to the seat with a leather belt. She writhes in protest and snarls:

‘Ah’ll curse thi! Ah’ll spill thar blood!’

‘It’s the hole for you!’ jeers Dobbs. ‘The hole!’

Birkin shakes her head and quips:

‘Another day in Paradise.’

They watch on as Jimmy wheels Mary away down the corridor. Then Maria turns to Dobbs and asks:

‘What does she mean? The hole?’

‘Er, well miss, it’s an old padded cell by the Eastern tower. There’s some Victorian wards there. But they’re all derelict now. It’s where we put the troublemakers. Just to cool off mind…’

Maria swallows the lump in her throat. For she suddenly realises that Jack is hidden in exactly the same place. She turns to Birkin and asks:

‘Is that official procedure? The hole.’

‘Official?’ snorts Birkin. ‘If it works, it’s official in my book. You will soon find that the general regulations are only guidelines when it comes to dealing with patients like Mary Higgins. As for the application of mechanical restraints, they still serve their purpose. So I’d get down off that high horse if I were you. Mary Higgins pulled a knife on me last month.’

‘Did she?’ gasps Torris.

‘She held it to my neck for twenty minutes – until I was rescued by Dobbs, that is. Now, shall we find David? I haven’t got all day…’

Maria looks abashed by Birkin’s sudden display of authority. She stands there for a moment, still shaken by the Harpy as Dobbs leers at her bosom.

Meanwhile, the other inmates have carried on regardless, oblivious to the commotion. An old trout refuses to eat, pursing her lips as she is force fed with a spoon. Her grey hair is tied with pretty ribbons, as if she were a bonny young girl. Further down the table, a buxom wench holds up a sausage and cries:

‘Limp and useless!’

She stands on a stool, raises her skirt, and holds the sausage at her pubis. But no one takes a blind bit of notice; so she climbs on the table, slides the sausage up her knickers and cries:

‘For love of God, what a tiny cock!’

The hall jostles with stomping feet and hoots of riotous laughter. Startling blasphemies ring off the walls; the crudest expletives arise from a bench of bearded hags who grimace and mewl like cats, jabbing the air with their forks:

‘Cut it off! Chop! Chop!’

‘I’ve seen bigger ones than that!’

‘Liar! She’s a frigid ole cow, she is!’

‘Put it in yer gob and suck it!’

‘She’s never had it up her!’

‘I did it in the bushes with Bobby Perry!’

‘Ooh! Ah! Good for you Ethel!’

‘He was a big boy. A very big boy… Such lovely eyes…’

Then Birkin belows:

‘Cathy Barnes! Get down! Get down this instant!’

But Cathy just bends over and bares her buttocks in defiance. Whereupon Dobbs rushes to the scene and wrestles her away.

Amidst the chaos, Maria spots a naked waif crouched on the floor by the radiator. She squats like a goblin, her bony spine poking through her back. She’s lost in her own little world, and eats calmly off a tin tray which she pins to the tiles with her toes. Everything is neatly laid out: a sandwich on a paper serviette; two cubes of sugar, a mug of tea and a plastic spoon. She nibbles her bread like a squirrel, stripping the crust with her front teeth, then palming the rest in her mouth until her cheeks bulge and her eyes water. She gags and swallows repeatedly, munching and wincing as she washes it down with gulps of tea. When she has finished, she carefully unwraps the sugar, scoffs the paper, and hides the cubes behind the radiator. The valve is buried in a mound of old sugar, all filthy brown and crawling with cockroaches. The waif watches them scurry down a hole in the skirting. Quick as a flash, she traps one in her palm; she holds it up between finger and thumb, watching its feelers waver in the air. Then she bites off its head and puts the abdomen in her teacup. A quick stir with her spoon and she gulps it down in one. A faint smile comes to her lips. She whispers in triumph:

‘You are from beneath: but I am from above. You are of this world: but I am not of this world.’ [iii]

i. Matthew 27:25.

ii. Dante ‘The Divine Comedy’ Hell. Canto XIII, Circle VII: Ring ii; Violence against self.

iii. John 8:23.

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 2017