Sunhill Asylum, November 14, 1963
Leaving the kitchens, Maria follows Birkin to the morgue where the open door reveals a wall of refrigeration cabinets. The technician is busy examining a male corpse which lies on the autopsy carrier. The head is disarticulated with most of the soft tissue absent; the chest and abdomen reveal advanced decomposition and the pelvic organs are reduced to a mushy pulp. The lower extremities are better preserved; most of the soft tissue is present but the knees are broken, the shins lacerated, and the toes missing. Birkin shakes her head in remorse:
‘That’s Harry Tibbs, god rest his soul. He disappeared last summer. We thought he’d run away. But he was found last night in the coal heap. They only dug him out this morning.’
‘What happened?’ asks Maria.
‘It was suicide, they think. He jumped from a window and was buried by the winter delivery. You’d think the coal man might have spotted him. He’s been food for rats a good many months…’
The technician looks up and scowls:
‘Can I help you, Sister? Is there something you want?’
‘Is that Harry Tibbs?’
‘It is. What’s left of him.’
‘I knew that was Harry. I could tell by the tattoo on his left thigh. The mermaid: he got it in Shanghai, you know. He was in the Navy.’
The technician covers the corpse with a sheet:
‘And what’s Harry Tibbs got to do with you?’
‘He was on my ward two years ago.’
‘Well, that hardly makes you a relation, does it?’
‘Listen to me young man: I gave Harry Tibbs more bed-baths than you’ve had hot dinners.’
The technician is not impressed:
‘Shut the door please, Sister. This is a mortuary, not a public gallery.’
Birkin gives an indignant toss of the head:
‘We were just passing. But the door was wide open. That’s not my fault, is it?’ Then aside to Maria: ‘Young people today: they’ve got no manners…’
Birkin walks briskly towards the laundry where steam wafts from the swinging doors. Porters glide in and out steering huge wicker baskets, stacked with canvas bags.
‘Deep breath,’ says Birkin, as she flits inside.
The stench hits Maria like a wall. She surveys a dingy hell-hole populated by some thirty workers in oilskin aprons and Wellington boots. The foreman, a rotund giant with an eye patch, records the baskets they enter the pound. He tallies the bags, ticks off the ward number on his clipboard, then hurls them toward the sorting pens where they get emptied into crates.
The crates are surrounded by mountains of soiled sheets which seep in foetid pools. All manner of linen is strewn about the floor; bed sheets, drawer sheets, transfer sheets, counterpanes, blankets, nightwear, foundation garments, slings, white coats, blue coats, green coats, surgical gowns, theatre drapes, scrubs, and terry nappies. Workers grade the items by kind—cotton, wool and synthetics, checking for stains, holes and tears, and removing foreign objects such as hairpins, tissues, swabs and dressing tape. Sorted items are loaded onto three conveyors which run for fifteen yards into the Wash Room. Heavily soiled items are put in black barrows and wheeled to the Foul Room where two skivvies stand smoking at a trough of running water. They puff like dragons, scraping off the solids with wooden paddles, then dunk the cloth in vats of disinfectant. Cockroaches scuttle round their feet, drawn by the odour of bodily fluids which trickle down the drains. Items deemed unfit for further use are thrown in a yellow bin marked ‘Condemned’.
Maria treads gingerly through the scum, wincing at a rat nibbling on a nappy. A man in a cap driving a sack trolley crosses her path and cries:
‘Watch yer toes!’
He stops right in front of her and adds:
‘Th’art too glam for this work pet!’ – And then to Sister Birkin – ‘Tossin’ her in at t’deep end art thi?’
‘She’s a psychiatrist,’ replies Birkin proudly.
‘A shrink? Is she heckers like!’
‘I am,’ retorts Maria.
‘Well, book me an appointment!’
‘Are you a patient here?’ asks Maria.
‘No, but ah’ve got this problem, see… It’s a bit delicate, mind; whenever I see a pretty lass I get all—’
‘Yes, all right Billy,’ tuts Birkin, ‘that’s quite enough. We don’t want to hear it. Let us through please, we’re busy.’
‘Awlreet sister, keep yer hair on, it were only a joke.’ He winks at Maria. ‘Not from round these parts, eh?’
‘Come to analyse the proletariat? Free us all from bondage, eh? I don’t mind the work missen; it’s just the stink I can’t stand. We found a baby in ’ere last week…’
‘A baby?’ scowls Birkin. ‘What baby?’
‘Wrapped in a resty sheet, it were. Torn limb from limb. Aborted. Foreman flushed it down toilet.’
‘Aborted?’ exclaims Maria. ‘But how do you know? What about the mother? It might have been a miscarriage.’
Billy glares, stone faced:
‘It weren’t a miscarriage. It were full of holes. Stabbed to death. Some old cow wi’ a knitting needle. Yer can hardly blame her; I mean, who’d want to raise a sprog in this place?’
The foreman overhears and shouts:
‘Shut yer cake ’ole Billy, and get back to work!’
‘Art tawkin ’ter me boss?’
Th’art Billy, aren’t thi?’
‘Well who else d’yer think am I talkin’ ter? Frank Sinatra?’
‘Well get back ter work then! Stondin theer like one a’ Burtons’ dummies!’
‘Cratchy old git,’ mutters Billy.
‘I heard that! Ah’m bown’t fawl owt wi’ thee, lad!’
Billy ignores him and lolls on his trolley, ogling Maria at leisure. She looks so chaste, angelic and completely unobtainable. Her scent lingers in his head like a pomander, and for a brief moment he forgets himself… It’s their honeymoon on the Italian Riviera. A coastal road at sunset. He’s driving a red E-Type Jaguar and she’s gazing in adoration, a silk scarf tied about her windblown hair. He grins and changes up a gear, gripping the shiny wheel in soft kid gloves. Then a sneering voice echoes in his head:
‘Yer need brass fer a lass like that, Billy boy! She’s too classy fer thi! Way out of yer league! Yer nobbut a shit shoveller! A blether-hed! A barmpot! Proletariat? Yer durn’t even know how to spell it! Dream on Billy boy! Dream on, yer ruddy greyt eggwap!’
He spies a cockroach, stamps on it, then turns to Birkin and asks:
‘Hast thi come to investigate?’
‘We knew nothing about it.’
‘What dust thi want then?’
‘We’re looking for David,’ replies Maria. ‘Is he about?’
‘Where is he?’ asks Birkin, craning her neck. ‘I can’t see him anywhere.’
‘He got promoted. He works in t’ Ironing Room now. Shall I get him fer yer?’
‘No. We’ll find him ourselves.’
‘What durst thi want wi’ him?’
‘Never you mind,’ snaps Birkin. ‘Now step aside and let us through. We’re very busy and haven’t got time for idle gossip.’
‘Ah’ve ben ’ere longer than David, yer know. I started off wi’ th’owd faggots in t’ Foul Room. Two years shovellin’ shit, then four years sortin’ linen. Ah’m twenty three now. Six years and my wages ’ave only gone up by five shillings a week. Ah’ll be drawing my pension soon enough. That’s hardly a career fer a man of my talents. I should ’ave been promoted long ago. I mean, I’m a proper employee; David’s just a loony.’
‘Well that’s nothing to do with me now, is it?’ retorts Birkin.
‘David’s got friends in high places,’ grouses Billy.
‘Oh? And who would that be?’ asks Birkin.
‘Yer know who I mean – that ginger bloke wi’ crooked teeth.’
‘You mean Pontius?’ quizzes Maria.
‘That’s reet, Pontius. David thinks he’s too good for the likes of us…’
Just then the foreman shouts:
‘Billy Perry! I won’t tell thi again! Get back to work, an’ let the ladies through!’
Reluctantly, Billy lets them pass and bows with a regal flourish. He gawps as Maria trots away, surveying her figure from head to toe—platinum curls, clinched waist, split skirt, silk stockings and high heels. Then he blows a long saucy wolf-whistle.
Birkin follows the conveyors into the Wash Room where a clattering line shaft whirs overhead. Much of the equipment is pre-war. A system of pulleys and belts directs power to six industrial washing machines that froth and spit like soapy volcanoes. Each cast iron tub is an upright cylinder standing three feet high and four feet wide; the inner drum, which is made of perforated brass, is geared to a huge flywheel on the side of the machine. Two attendants stand like signal men, pulling levers that hang from the overhead shaft; the linkage mechanism shuts sideways, engaging a bigger wheel. The tubs begin to judder and shake, rumbling with such a din that the floor trembles underfoot.
Birkin shouts above the thunder:
‘Exciting isn’t it!’
Maria grins uneasily as they wend between two giant mangles. The flags are awash with suds. A fat hosepipe snakes around their feet, hissing with leaks; several repairs have been made along its length, bound with black mastic; it twitches in spasms then spews torrents of waste into a stone trough; the drain snorts as the effluent gurgles away leaving a thick brown sludge.
They continue through an arcade of cast iron pillars with acanthus leaf capitals. The space has the semblance of a Victorian gazebo or botanical greenhouse. Washing lines droop from pillar to pillar, laden with sheets and smalls. The sawtooth roof, which is glazed on the northern face, admits a leaden sky; it shimmers in the puddles and the edifice seems lost in cloud: an asylum in the air.
Maria stops and gazes at her reflection. Stabbed to death. The words keep ringing in her head. Why did Billy have to tell her that? Was he trying to upset her? The omens of morning weigh heavy on her heart: Lizzie Sykes, driven mad by four stillbirths; the screaming harpy under the bench, and mad Mary Higgins, locked in the hole. Jack. She must get to Jack. He was expecting her at dawn and it was already past noon. Had Dobbs discovered his whereabouts? Would Pontius thwart all her prophetic expectations? Her reflection disintegrates. She senses enormous unseen powers stirring beneath the surface. She felt unhinged by Jack’s reality. Was the Apocalypse truly at hand? Or was she about to be undone by the ravings of a false prophet? She half expects the earth to reel on its axis and the stars to fall from the heavens. She was not beyond the bounds of madness herself; for she too had been a fervent disciple of eschatology. Her cloistered life was full of portentous dreams: plumes of volcanic ash blotting out the sun; comets, eclipses, quakes and floods; and lambent moons which set in seas of blood. Yet the revelations of the Apostolic Fathers were well within the bounds of possibility – after all, they were the natural processes of the Cosmos. But the Al Jinn and Titans from the deep? That was just deluded fantasy…
Preoccupied, she collides with a basket of dirty socks. A swarm of cockroaches comes writhing to the surface, heaving in a treacle mass. She gags and shrieks:
‘Ugh! How vile!’
A crone appears with a broom and chuckles:
‘Did thi get a nasty turn pet? Them mawkin socks are reet tasty fer roaches! Filthy vermin, they are!’
She calls across the hall:
‘Ere, Jo! Come an’ lend a hand! It’s time fer some bug-splashin’!’
A scrawny old man comes wheezing across the tiles, a pipe pursed in his rubbery lips. He tips the basket onto the floor and the beetles spill out in a seething wave. Without delay, the crone sweeps them into the drain, cursing:
‘Filthy beasts! Breedin’ in my baskets! Thi allus fill thar bally weel wi’ my socks! Pooh! What a middlin’ throng!’ She singles one out with her foot: ‘Poor little roachy; worrel thi do now? An’, tha’s sich a pratty face! Now get down thur; get down thur and durn’t come back!’
‘Drownded!’ wheezes the man, as he swills them away with a bucket of bleach.
‘Oh how vile!’ exclaims Maria. ‘How simply vile!’
‘It’s all part of th’ job luv,’ winks the man, puffing on his pipe.
As Maria walks away, she overhears him chuckle as the crone mimics:
‘Oh how vile! How simply vile!’
‘Take no notice of them pet,’ says Birkin. ‘It’s just because you speak posh. They wouldn’t know what hellocution is. Come on, the Ironing Room ’s through here…’
They enter a stifling chamber that drones like a hornet’s nest. Six rotary driers hum in the alcoves. The gun metal doors resemble torpedo hatches, surrounded by gauges, dials and lights. The manufacturer’s name is cast in relief and painted with red enamel: ‘Lister Brother’s LTD. LONDON’. Maria feels a sudden pang for home. How she yearns for the leafy glades of Putney! The gentile streets of tall white villas and Georgian façades! It all seems so very far away. What was she doing here? Putting the world to rights? Had she taken leave of her senses? Hiding Jack was a criminal offence. The repercussions were too awful to think of: she might end up in prison. Even the cloister was better than the clink. Then Mother Superior appears in a noxious mist:
‘Saving Jack Vallis is a fool’s errand. You have been deceived child. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and they shall show great signs and wonders, and shall deceive the very elect.’ [i]
Her mind tumbles in a flurry of doubt. She almost wants Kennedy to die, just to prove Jack right. How terrible, that vindication would come at so great a price! She begins to panic. The rank air cloys her throat. The fetor clings to her flesh and seeps through her pores. Every secretion and malodorous humour of the mad seems to course through her veins. Her heart falters, swamped by all the festering filth. In a flash, she understands every affliction of mind; every disturbed passion and apprehension of soul; the corporal organs of sense, diseased, decayed and deranged; all the concealed marks of mental aberration; the violent and vociferous maniacs; the suicidal melancholics; the delirious mania of a world gone mad. Yet how could it be any other way? Insanity was the price of being human: the frustrations of an eternal soul, trapped in a finite frame of flesh.
The room spins in a whirl. She reels with nausea and grabs a mangle to stop herself from falling.
‘Are you all right?’ asks Birkin. ‘You’ve gone all pale.’
‘Yes, thank you sister, I’m fine. I’m just a bit faint, that’s all. Arrhythmia. I missed breakfast.’
‘Come on—the sooner we get you out of here the better… And by the way, best not mention that baby to anyone. Vigilance and discretion at all times, that’s my motto. Unwanted pregnancy has always been a problem here. The male and female wards are kept separate, but try as we might, we can’t stop the determined. Some of the inmates are animals, and given half a chance will resort to anything.’
Leaving the annex, they enter a pair of blue swinging doors with white letters: ‘Ironing Room’.
The noise fades as the doors swing shut. Just minutes from the squalor of the Foul Room is a pristine hall, radiant with white linen. Ironing stations line the aisle on each side, with lights and cables hanging from tall iron hoops. Each station is positioned by an open window that looks out onto a courtyard of red bricks. About sixty women gossip as they work, their irons hissing back and forth as they squirt starch from yellow cans.
‘Coming to the pictures tonight Gladys?’
‘I can’t pet. Our Tony’s off sick with a cold. Besides, it’s Coronation Street on the telly. Look ’ere Phyllis—this collar’s worn right through—think it’s worth saving?’
Phyllis puts her iron down and examines the hole:
‘Chuck it pet; it’s more trouble than it’s worth.’
‘Just like me: worn out and frayed at t’edges.’
Gladys throws the collar in the bin and picks up another. She quirts some starch then adds:
‘Uniforms aren’t as pretty as they were in my day. I was nurse during t’war, you know.’
‘Which war was that? The Crimean?’
‘War of the Roses, more like!’
‘I heard that, Beryl Althorpe!’ scowls Gladys.
‘I was a riveter,’ says Phyllis, blowing her nose. ‘Phyllis the Riveter. Doesn’t sound quite right, does that. I should ’ave been called Rosy. I built Spitfire wings.’
‘Did you?’ grins Gladys. ‘How wonderful.’
‘I miss the war. A terrible thing to say I know, but it wasn’t all bad, was it?’
‘No, but I saw some terrible things. Terrible things.’
‘Still, we kept our land: we kept our freedom.’
‘All those young men, cut down in their prime… The politicians should fight their own wars: that’s what my mother always said.’
‘Were you a field nurse?’
‘Oh no, not me. I was at the Adler Hey in Knotty Ash. Burns unit. I had six of everything; six blue long-sleeve dresses, six white starched aprons, six pairs of white starched cuffs, six starched collars, six starched caps, six blue starched belts and a navy blue cape lined with red baize. That was my favourite: it had two red straps crossing at the front. I wore black stockings and black shoes. I sent my washing to the laundry every Monday: it cost four shillings and six pence per week. Oh yes, I was quite a looker in my time…’
‘You’re not that old luv.’
‘I’m the wrong side of sixty. All my best assets have gone south!’
They squawk like parrots then fall silent as Birkin stops beside them.
‘Is David here?’ she asks.
‘Yes Sister,’ replies Gladys. ‘He works the rotary iron. Straight on through—you can’t miss it.’
They continue down the aisle past the sewing room where four women are busy mending sheets and gowns; they work with great skill and speed, their machines whirring like cicadas.
‘Hello girls!’ chirps Birkin.
‘I was at school with that lot,’ beams Birkin. ‘Ruby Banks, Janice Spedding, Vonda Clarke and Wini Hancock. They make everything here: pyjamas, curtains, gowns, pillow cases. You name it. They even made my uniform. Oh yes, we do it all at Sunhill…’
The pass under a broad arch of lurid green tiles, embossed with shells and fishes. Beyond is a low vault where a rotary iron respires in the gloom. A slight man with blonde hair is busy laying a tunic on the pressing table; he kicks a pedal and the platform swivels under the pressing head whilst another table appears with a freshly ironed towel. He folds the towel neatly and puts it in a wicker basket.
‘That’s David over there. I should warn you, he’s a bit slow; he’s very shy and he’s got a speech impediment.’
‘Very well, Sister. I understand.’
As they approach, Birkin says brightly:
‘Hello David. Hard at it, I see.’
‘Oh hullo sister.’
‘I want you to meet Doctor Torris. She’s a friend of mine.’
Maria smiles and holds out her hand:
‘Pleased to meet you David.’
But David clams up and turns the other away.
‘It’s all right David,’ prompts Birkin. ‘Maria’s a friend. You can trust her. She’s not like the others. She’s a believer, like us.’
Reluctantly, he shakes her hand and stutters:
‘P.p.p pleased to meet you. My name’s David. David Parks.’
‘That’s an impressive machine. Do you work it all by yourself?’
He grins proudly:
‘It irons anything. But it’ll have your fingers if you don’t watch out.’
When he speaks his jaw wobbles sideways and his lips quiver like landed fish.
Birkin checks her watch, then says:
‘Listen David, we need your help.’
‘Have you lost your laundry?’
‘No David, it’s not about the laundry. I want you to show Doctor Torris the basement.’
He steps back, shaking his head:
‘Oh no. I durn’t go down there. That’s where they do the trials.’
‘I know David,’ replies Maria. ‘But can you show the way? It’s very important. Someone’s life depends on it.’
His eyes light up:
‘You mean The Parisian Lady?’
‘Yes David, that’s right. Do you know him?’
‘Jack speaks to the dead. Spirits. He spoke to my Mam. Jack says there are spirits all around us. There’s a Roman soldier who haunts this place. Jack said I was a farmer in my last life – a ploughman.’
‘Were you?’ asks Maria. ‘How interesting.’
‘Yes. But I died of plague. What were you in your last life? Do you know?’
‘I will have to ask Jack.’
‘Ask him. He’ll tell you all right.’
‘Jack needs our help David. It’s very important. I need to search the basement.’
He shakes his head again:
‘You can’t go down there. No one can. It’s all locked up. The lift is broke. They cut off the power.’
‘Cut off the power?’ frowns Maria. ‘Whatever for?’
‘It’s secret. You’re not allowed. No one is. It’s all locked up. It’s dangerous. Out of bounds.’
The aspirator sighs and vents a jet of steam.
‘What about the stairs?’ asks Maria.
‘No stairs,’ replies David.
‘Well can you show me the lift?’
‘I’m not allowed. I promised.’
‘But David, you want to help Jack don’t you? It’s all right. It’ll be our little secret.’
He starts scratching his wrists and arms:
‘No, I mustn’t. Out of bounds. It’s the rules. You mustn’t break the rules. Bad things will happen.’
‘Bad things. Doctor Pontius said.’
‘What else did Pontius say?’
He shakes his head and scowls:
‘Go away. Leave me alone.’
He backs into a corner and starts biting his nails.
Maria’s heart drops. She draws a handkerchief from her sleeve and sobs:
‘Oh Sister! If I can’t get those files, Jack’s finished. I really thought I could save him!’
Birkin puts a motherly hand on her shoulder:
‘Never mind pet. You can’t say you didn’t try…’
Maria sniffs and blows her nose:
‘I’m sorry Sister. I don’t know why I’m crying to be honest – for Jack, for me, or for that poor baby. Torn limb form limb, Billy said. That’s murder.’
‘There’s nothing we can do about it now.’
‘Shouldn’t they have called the police? Stabbed with a knitting needle. An unborn child. I mean, if that isn’t a crime, what is? The whole world’s gone mad, stark raving mad. It’s all so beastly!’
‘Listen pet, are you sure that Sunhill is the right place for you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, have you considered private practice?’
‘Private practice? What? And spend my whole life listening to neurotic housewives with more money than sense? No thank you very much.’ She sniffles again. ‘I came to this asylum to heal sick minds.’
‘Of course you did, and I respect that. But I’ve been working here a long time, and I’ve seen a good many people like you get swallowed up.’
‘You don’t think I’m cut out for the grim realities of asylum life? I’m a good doctor, you know.’
‘I know you are pet, and it’s not really my place, but if you get so involved with the inmates, you won’t last five minutes.’
Maria stiffens and puts her hanky away:
‘Of course, you’re right Sister, I know you are. It’s just that Jack Vallis is special. He’s much more than a clairvoyant. He has other powers. Extraordinary powers.’
Birkin checks her watch again:
‘Come on luv, let’s get you a nice cup of tea.’
She steers Maria away. Then David asks softly:
‘Is she going to die? The Parisian Lady.’
‘She is,’ affirms Birkin. ‘Lobotomy. She won’t be telling fortunes after that…’
He watches them leave, chewing on his cuff. He hesitates for moment, then cries out:
‘Wait! I know another way!’
Maria stops and turns, her eyes sparkling with tears:
‘You do? Where David? Where?’
‘Pit? Is there a mine here?’
‘No, I mean the orchestra pit. In the ballroom.’
Maria rushes toward him and grabs his hand:
‘Will you show me David?’
‘Yes. But we’ll need torches…’
‘Well, I’ll leave you both to it,’ says Birkin, rechecking her watch. ‘I’ve got a ward to attend.’
‘Yes, yes of course. Thank you Sister, you’ve been very kind. A true friend. Thank you so much.’
‘You’ll be all right with David: he’s the best Trusty in Sunhill. Look after her now, won’t you David?’
Birkin smiles and trots away.
David throws a lever and the rotary iron dies with a hiss. He checks down the aisle and says:
‘If the foreman finds me gone, I’ll be back in the Foul Room before you can say Jack Robinson.’
‘Is there another way out?’
‘Yes, the fire escape. Follow me…’
i. Matthew, 24:24.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2018.