Radnor Lake Sanatorium is a well known and avoided landmark in town. It is whispered about and used as teases, taunts and veiled threats to naughty little children,
"You'll send me to the Sanatorium one of these days!" It was sometimes the case that patients were seen on days out and it was not an uncommon sight and it was melded into the pace of the city.
But the Chestnut Lodge, which was set apart from the city, both in the minds of the residents and in location – set high up on the hills which ringed the city, glowering down into the bowl of the valley, brooding and watching; an ever-present shadow cast. People did not speak of Chestnut Lodge so freely; it was no joking matter the poor souls which raved and laughed and sobbed and cried out in their private madness in the barred and guarded fortress, and when the radio would squawk and inform people of an escapee, people would huddle in their homes and peep fearfully around the curtains at the perceived madman lurking in the shadows, with unfocused eyes.
I had fallen asleep soon after my conversation with the doctor. It had worn me out and I was drained of energy and emotion. Luckily Dennys understood and did not press me, just gave me an extra tight squeeze before covering me in the duvet. He went down stairs, saying that he wanted to read a bit before he went to sleep and didn't want to disturb me. I just nodded and then fell easily into a deep pit of black oblivion and slept like a dead-thing.
All too quickly, Monday morning had arrived. I had rung Mrs Greene to apologise and inform her that I could not make it over on Monday morning, and then Dennys had walked with me back to the house. I had run upstairs to shower and change into something smart, while Dennys had made some breakfast for the kids. He had agreed to stay with them until I got back for which I was forever in his debt. He'd never truly been in my house before and here he was staying and babysitting for an entire day! I think he'd only seen part of the hallway all these years, but that was my doing of course.
Once I was sure the kids were settled and I had all the possible paperwork, I had caught the bus alone up to the hospital.
I had walked to the outpatient clinic at the hospital where I would meet Dr Randall and from there we would make our way up to Chestnut Lodge. As soon as I had entered the hospital, the nauseous wave of disinfectant smell hit my nostrils making me feel queasy. I sat in a dismal waiting room, tugging at my too-small and uncomfortable fitted shirt and running my fingers through my still-damp hair, and trying not to make eye contact with anyone else in the room. Eventually Dr. Randall appeared. I surreptitiously checked my watch. 11.15am. I had been waiting around for hours.
"Hello dear, thank you for coming. I hope you're feeling a little calmer than yesterday? Hmm?" He raised his eyebrows at me, reproachfully. I just walked past him into his office and took a deep breath to calm myself. "Do sit down." I sat on the hard chair and stared into Dr. Randall's face. He sighed and did not waste any time on preliminaries for which I was thankful.
"As you know, your mother was making some small progress with us. Her medication dosage was low and she had been given more privileges; being allowed in the garden with an escort and allowed to draw in the workshop, and she had be having less relapses and fits. She was being regularly escorted to the hospital here to have hourly sessions with me twice a week and I felt that we had been making progress and building trust, and moving in closer to the root o f the problem and troubles. It was very encouraging. But suddenly, over the past two or three weeks, she's gotten considerably worse. We've had to put her back on stronger drugs, and she's had to be put into seclusion several times. The nurses tell me she's been aggressive, starting fights and stirring up the ward, and had to be forcibly restrained in pack, which is not like her. Lately she's been staying in her room and has entered a semi-catatonic state, refusing to eat, talk, or make eye contact. The nurses have not wanted to remove her in her current conditions for our sessions. I went down to see her on the ward, and was able to get no response out of her. This is worrying and I'm baffled as to why she's regressed.
"Towards the end of last week, a nurse went into her room to give her her evening meds and he found that she had cut up her arm, quite severely. She was sitting on the floor with a bedpan, collecting the shed blood. She had found a screw in part of her bed frame that was loose and managed to work it free and used it to cut up her arm. I honestly don't know how she managed this, as we are most vigilant for potential harmful objects on the wards and do regular checks in the rooms. But since your mother was a new arrival and in isolation at the time, the checks were less frequent which is why it must have slipped through. And needless to say, the nurses are now cracking down. But something as serious as this calls for her to be moved immediately to 'Disturbed' in Chestnut Lodge. She was given a tetanus shot and the wounds were dressed and she was sent straight down."
I had been staring into space. The world in front of me was blurred and out of focus and my vision had turned inwards. The words seemed so unreal. So unlike my mother. My beautiful Mama who I remember caring for me so tenderly when I was young, my Mama with her gorgeous flame-red hair tumbling down her back, with her head thrown back laughing with a carefree openness that was joyous to behold and share. My dear Mama who had grown sombre and subdued, fighting an internal battle with the demons who danced on her back, all those long years, and still managing to find time to read the kids a bed-time story and go to their music recitals and push them on the swings in the park. But finally the darkness had grown too much for her to stand up under. Her light had been blotted out by the creeping alien darkness from within, which came from she knew-not-where. Her methods for hiding from them, dissembling, tricking them, and doing penance for her perceived sins had all been for nought in the end. And now, for her diligence at chipping away at the foundations of her soul, the very ground beneath her feet, her demons were punishing her.
The doctor had been peering intently into my ashen face, no doubt gauging my seeming lack of response and clocking it, thinking, "It must run in the family, this madness." He cleared his throat.
"Melanie? What are you thinking about?" I must have jumped slightly, despite knowing that he would break into my reverie. My vision jumped and struggled to focus on Dr. Randall's face. I stared at him, but was still was not really seeing him. And then with a great effort, I pulled my voice up out of my chest, into the white cube of his office.
"I understand. When can I see her?" I sounded like a stranger even to myself. A ghost, a shadow.
"We can go whenever you're ready. I don't want to rush you, as this must be a very hard meeting for you. But you must know that due to the circumstances I have advised that it is unwise and most definitely imprudent for you to actually speak to your mother. You are permitted to see her, but she will not see you, and you will not be able to speak to her. Hopefully this will be of some comfort to you and allay some of your fears, even though I know it is not ideal." I nodded. It would have to do for now.
We went in Dr. Randall's car. He kept on peering over at me in the passenger seat. He must have thought that I couldn't see him doing this, and thought that it would not make me feel like a lab-rat, given some stimulus and then told to run through a maze. I'd taken a wrong turn and he wanted to see what I'd do next. It didn't matter. I'd already decided to petition for Mama to change doctors. This man was clearly not effective, his methods too calloused and coldly logical to be effective. I had in mind who I wanted for her instead, but I'd need to win their support first as they were always fully booked.
It was a long, uncomfortable drive up to Chestnut Lodge. The expensive car sped quickly out of the city and soon we were on roads that were not surrounded by skyscrapers or housing estates but instead trees and the country side, and we began to climb steeply into the surrounding hills. The roads were potholed, narrow and winding, and combined with the butterflies in my stomach I felt faintly nauseous. The silence in the car was thick. Dr Randall reached across and I unconsciously flinched away from his hands. He noticed the movement and shot me a quick, sharp glance out of the corner of his eye, which I tried to ignore, as he switched on the radio and filled the car with the muttering voices of a chat show. The topic of the day was organic farming, and I learned a great deal of how farmers' independent markets were of crucial importance in maintaining and supporting the shrinking number of autonomous organic farmers in today's increasingly difficult political climate with politicians pressuring for quantity and lower costs rather than high quality and reduced chemical impact on the countryside. Dr Randall muttered along with the commentator and laughed at the jokes, and nodded at the arguments, and glanced at me, and tried to start conversation. It was a long drive.
Eventually, we pulled up to Chestnut Lodge. There was a high wall encircling the main building and a heavy gate that looked like a portcullis set into it. We drove up, and Dr Randall spoke briefly into an intercom. Once through, a uniformed guard approached the car. Dr Randall rolled down his window and exchanged a few words. He presented the guard with a key-card, and a punch card for clocking in and out. We were clocked into the system. We drove around, crunching on the gravel, and parked.
I climbed out of the stuffy car, glad to be free from the confined space. I tugged at my shirt and reappraised the building. It was an imposing edifice; gothic style intricacies along the windows and the tucked into the eves, dark stone, worn rough with age, and a high sloping roof. The windows were guarded by heavy bars covered in a thin wire mesh. I knew that they would be set high up on the inside of the walls; preventing patients from climbing up to reach them. It looked like a prison. Dr Randall walked up the path. The trees in the front were wrapped in protective plastic, protecting the branches from being stripped from the trunk and used as means to an End. He pulled a weighty key from his pocket, along with the electronic key-card and let us in. Inside, the nauseating smell of disinfectant was as strong as ever. My stomach felt like a block of iron and just as heavy and my mouth held a metallic tang of dread. The disinfectant was barely masking the other human smells of vomit and defecation. And fear. The air was thick with it. The inside was equally atmospheric, adding to the impression of a dark castle from the likes of Northanger Abby. We walked down an echoing corridor. Doors lined both sides. Doors without handles. The occupants of the narrow cells moaned or sobbed from within; called out to us, to themselves to their demons, begging for forgiveness, for salvation. There were no patients walking around the ward.
"Is it normally like this? Everyone locked inside their rooms? They do get to walk around, don't they?"
"Of course dear, don't be silly. I had the ward cleared for us. Much better that way." We continued our walk. Eventually we came to a little booth pulled out from the side of the wall. It was lit brightly with a harsh fluorescence, and had a mettle grill that could be pulled down to close it off.
"This is the nursing station." I peered in. Inside was a room, larger than I had expected, going farther back inside the wall. There were some comfy sofas, and a coffee machine. Trolleys with files, books, and instruments lined the walls of the small room. There were four or five men and women in starched white uniforms, sitting or standing around. I smiled and nodded to them. The nodded back, but there was a profound weariness in their stance; that look of sapped energy. That look I knew so well. I wondered idly if I looked like that to them. There was one nurse though, who on seeing me, stood up and approached us. He was tall and thin, and had delicate hands that made me think of Dennys. And when I studied his face, he had kind eyes. His dark brow was lined with wrinkles, but on seeing me it was creased afresh with worry.
"Hello, I'm Nurse Halford. I was the one who found Elaine when she'd cut up her arm, back at Radnor. I applied to be transferred over here a while before that, but her move came at the right time for me. I moved with her. I've been keeping my eye on her." He didn't say more, but his eyes seemed to say, "You're so young, little one, and I'm sorry."And I knew that he meant it kindly and did not take offence and the implication. I smiled at him as warmly as I could, because he was good, and caring and was looking out for my Mama.
"Thank you," I said, and meant it.
We had reached the end of the corridor. There was a large heavy metal door and the corridor bent around to the right and narrowed further and beyond I could see the dark holes of the solitary confinement rooms and the cold packs set up with their tight binding sheets, waiting to be pressed into service. I looked away quickly, but the sight was burned into my eyes. Dr Randall heaved open the main door. Beyond was a very large airy room with a high ceiling and slits of windows set high up sending shafts of dusty light filtering down in rays to the floor. It was set about with a hodgepodge of mismatched benches, sofas, chairs, and tables. It had the look of being hastily vacated. There was a game of chess in progress, played by one, set up on a table and a few books lay around on the chairs. There were warm throws and blankets draped across the sofas. A heater sat in one corner, and there was an unconscious but easily defined partition in the room for those patients with smoking privileges; those dangerous and enticing fire-tipped sticks. And on one side of the room there was another door, but not a heavy metal one, and Dr Randall opened it without a key and ushered me in. Here there were several other doors. There was a large communal bathroom which I peeked into quickly. It had a large shared shower and several stalls for toilets, each with a lock on the outside. The next door along led to another corridor, this one with the solitary confinement rooms on it; those small windowless boxes, and the cold packs with their sheets all set up to wrap a patient tight in. And the third was the day room, for visiting. It was a small room but it was bright and seemed less oppressive in there. There was a radiator against the wall, and an ash-tray on the table and a potted plant on the windowsill.
Beyond was a small room with a long rectangular table, set with chairs. An ashtray rested on the table and the fragrance of spring seemed to drift into the room and settle within it. It was peaceful in the small room and I recognised it as a place where you could go to contemplate in silence. It was quite spiritual. That quick aroma of flowers in bloom, of life bursting forth after the harsh winter which drifted into the room made my eyes water spontaneously at the thought of all those patients who had smelt that alluring fragrance of the outside world and had longed for the freedom of the wide open places of the earth.
Dr. Radnor pulled out a packet of cigarettes and sat down at the small table. He lit it, and got it going before exhaling a blue-grey cloud of smoke and turned to address me. I tried not to gag on the fowl smoke.
"Here is what will happen now, Melanie; a nurse has gone to fetch your mother. She will be brought in here, where I will talk with her. You will watch from the nursing station. We've set up a temporary video link." He pointed to a discrete camera in the top corner of the wall. "Alright?" I nodded. "Is there anything you want me to ask her?" I looked blank. Here was my moment, my opportunity and my mind was drawing a blank. "Anything you want me to tell her?"
I latched onto this with relief, "Yes," I said firmly, "Tell her that I love her. And that I miss her, we all miss her. All the kids." He nodded, in that condescending way of his, and stood up to steer me out.
I walked back towards the nursing station. Once I was there, a woman nurse came out, to open a little gate in the worktop to let me in. I stood just inside the doorway, feeling foolish. The woman came up behind me and put a hand on my back and steered me to a sofa, and placed a little remote television screen in my hand.
"I'm Head Nurse Roberts but please call me Amelia. Is there anything I can get you? Would like some tea or coffee?"
"No, thank you. I'm alright."
"Alright then, just ask if you need anything. I have to go on my rounds now, but Nurse Halford is still here. Please don't be shy. You should never be a stranger here, come as often as you like. Don't listen to that pompous doctor of yours." And she winked at me before departing.
I switched the little monitor on, and it fizzed and jumped into focus. I watched as the door to the dayroom opened. I was unconsciously holding my breath. My Mother walked in. She was shuffling and bent over, unable to stand up under her own perceived increased gravity which pressed on her shoulders, and cloud of craziness. Her head was lowered and downcast. I could not see her face yet. I studied every other inch of her; grey ward pyjamas that were stained and ragged, and too short; overlong, lanky hair that was matted and tangled into a snarled nest; hands that were held in front of her and she was unconsciously ringing them again and again, until they were white. The doctor stood up as she was shown in. He walked around the table and pulled out the second chair and steered her into it. She gave him no resistance, gave no sign of knowing what he was doing, just let him guide her. Once she was seated, the camera angle was better and I could see her front. Her face was ashen and pinched. There were large dark circles around her eyes, and her cheeks were hollow depressions. Her lips were moving, but I could not hear what she was saying. I turned the monitor over looking for a volume dial, and fiddled with it. One of the nurses came over and handed me a pair of earphones which I plugged in without registering. I still couldn't hear what she was saying, but then I realised that the sound was not penetrating farther than the inside of her head. It looked as though she was muttering an incantation or prayer, perhaps, or perhaps a running commentary on daily events. Either way it spooked me to see this clear hard evidence of mental instability. She was also shivering, although the day had been one of the warmest yet, and the ward was kept warm with radiators. Her cold came from within.
"Hello Mrs Jeffrey, can you hear me?"
As the doctor spoke, I saw that her trembling became more violent.
"Elaine, it is alright." Dr Randall was saying in comforting tones, "You remember me, Dr Randall, yes? I've been seeing you for some time now. You remember that?" He addressed everyone as though they were toddlers I noticed crossly, "You are safe here. Don't worry. Chestnut Lodge is safe. How is your arm doing?"
And it was then that I noticed the clean white square of bandage poking out from under her pyjamas on her left arm. I noticed the way Mama was huddled over it, protecting and shielding it.
"It must be very painful. Does it hurt?"
Still no sign that Mama had heard Dr Randall's words, or that they had meant more to her than gibberish. I was unconsciously chewing a nail.
"I hope you are settling in here alright. This change must have come as quite a shock. I understand what it's like being in a strange new place, not knowing anyone. You will get to know the nurses and other patients in time. But for now, I think it's best to keep you separated, alright? How is the dosage level? Too high? Are you getting to sleep alright?" None of his words made the slightest bit of difference. Mama still sat and rocked, eyes unseeing. I ground my teeth in frustration. He was treating her halfway between a child too stupid to understand what he was saying and a perfectly sane adult who would have no problem responding to his questions.
"Is there anything that you would like? Anything I can get you, do for you? Hmmm?" His trademark condescension.
Slowly Mama raised her head, her eyes now rock steady, not flickering and shifting but glued to the doctors face. Her head was down and she looked at him through her lashes and it must have been quite a powerful intimidating look because I saw the doctor flinch ever so slightly before his training could cover it. Then he met her stare straight on. She seemed to be weighing up, making a tally, deciding if the risks outweighed the benefits. With a huge effort, I heard her voice work,
"My children. My babies." And then her mouth was open in a little mewling o and she broke and I heard the sob rise as she curled into a ball. I realised that she had not been speaking to the doctor at all, not really, but to her inner self, her inner monologue. The doctor however had not realised this, and was on his feet, moving to comfort, to reassure, but at the touch of his hands on her back, she jerked away and when her head came back up the madness was gleaming clearly in her eye. She seemed to explode outwards, grabbing handfuls of the doctor and lifting him with inhuman ease, like a doll. With balletic grace she pirouetted and spun and hurled the terrified form of Dr Randall against a wall where he lay limp and gasping, and then the prima ballerina began to scream and rave and howl, shaking her fists and stamping her feet and tearing at her hair.
"Devil take the hindmost! 'And the fire rained down and the firstborn fell.' She fell down into the pit of Hell. Eve was temped and damned us all. Eve, you treacherous snake! The serpent whispered in your ear. The angels fell from grace and the authority plunged them into the fiery pit. You will go to hell and feel the wrath of the Devil. He will dance on your back and break you." A crazed giggle, and then the high-pitched scream, "He will love you and fuck you and cut you, for that is all you deserve, you dirty whore. You are filthy and dirty in the eyes of the lord and will burn for your sins. May God have mercy..." Behind me I felt the rush of attendants as they moved to quell and subdue with needles and drugs. It took three to pin down the thrashing limbs but none could restrain the wild voice which shouted obscenities and words in an unknown and long forgotten tongue, until the burning ice of the drugs coursed through Mama's veins. The screen in front of my eyes had dissolved into tears and slipped from my hands.
Nurse Halford put a strong arm around me, and steered me into the cubical of the bathroom. I couldn't see a thing for the tears which flowed from my eyes. I sat down on the seat, grateful for the lock on the door. I took control of myself with a will, and fought with myself until I stopped crying. I tore off some tissue and wiped the gummy mess from my nose and eyes and heaved a massive, shuddering sigh. She had definitely gotten worse. It is always difficult seeing her, but that was easily the hardest meeting; not even being allowed to speak with her directly and her at her lowest point in years. The madness was clear, but with added and worrying elements: the numerous religious references and her self-harming. Mama was never previously religious. I wonder why this new change came about, and at the same time as the self-harming? I wonder if there's any chance they're connected. I would have to ask the good doctor. And look in on him too. He must be in a bad way, after the way Mama threw him across the room. A hysterical giggle escaped my lips at the memory of the arrogant doctor's shocked face as he flew across the room. Again I took control of myself and forced myself to stop snickering. I knew it was just as bad as sobbing. I had to be in control. My emotions were now back under my control and I locked them all away in their iron strongbox in my heart. I went out of the cubical and was confronted with a mirror over a small basin. The face that stared back at me left me shocked. It's true that I hadn't taken much time on myself over the past few weeks or months but the state I was in had me appalled. The girl in the glass was skinny and bony in an unhealthy way, skin pale and ashy from worry and broken sleep – now with blotchy red patches from crying. Dark circles surrounding haunted eyes and my hair, clean at least, scraped back into a severe bun at the back of the head, but it is thin and lacklustre. My best shirt is too small and my wrists stuck out of the cuffs and it didn't quite reach to the waist-band of my trousers, and was noticeably wrinkled from lack of an iron. My shoes were falling to bits. My hands, with their long thin fingers were shaking and the skin around my nails was destroyed. I was a sight.
I tried to rescue my makeup and ended up taking most of it off, and putting cold towels over my eyes for several seconds to try and get rid of the puffiness. I put my glasses back on and grimaced at the reflection in the mirror before pushing open the door and heading back to the nursing station.
Everything was in quite a commotion still, as Mama has been attended to, but Dr Randall needed to be taken down to the hospital for an x-ray on his wrist and leg, due to the angle he impacted with the wall. Nurse Roberts is back, and is co-ordinating everything. She notices me standing around and takes me aside, asking if I'm alright. I tell her that I'll go back into town in the ambulance with the doctor. She looks me in the eye and says that wasn't what she meant. I swallow the lump in my throat and duck my head. I mutter that I'm fine, and the good woman gives my shoulders a quick squeeze.
Soon the ambulance arrives and Dr Randall, who has been strapped to a gurney, is wheeled in. I explain my dilemma to the accompanying medic and he's quite happy to oblige. He offers to drop me all the way to the hospital as they're not in any great rush, and I don't refuse. I'm drained and was dreading the trek home on the bus.
By the time I get home, it's getting dark outside. The house lights are all on, glowing brightly. It is a cheering sight. The first all day. I open up the door and am bombarded by three hyper kids rushing at me. They are all talking at once and I laugh happily at their youthful exuberance. My eyes find Dennys' over the tops of their heads and we share a look that says, 'Not now, but later, we'll talk.' I hustle everyone down into the kitchen. Dennys had dinner on to cook; a hearty soup with a slice of buttery toast to go with it and a glass of milk for all. The kettle is on for a pot of tea which I realised I've needed all day. How is it that he always knows just what I need? I smile warmly at him in thanks. The kids are silent now, working on the soup. It appears that they are all pretty tired and managed to successfully wear out each other and Dennys with a fun-packed day. Dennys whisks away the dishes to wash them up in the sink and I take the troop upstairs to get ready for bed. James is quickly settled, but Brian and Jen are trickier as they've now gotten a second wind and want to stay up and play more. I send Brian into his room to change into his pyjamas while I help Jen with hers, and read her a quick book and then back down to Brian's room where he's successfully half-dressed himself in his PJs. I drag the top over his head and muss his hair fondly. He glances up from his trucks to glare at me, then turns back to his model cars. I perch on the bed and say that if he doesn't come now he won't get a story before the lights go out. He scoots under the covers, cuddling Doggy close, and I read his favourite. Then I kiss the top of his head and close the door gently behind me. I stick my head around Jen and James's doors briefly but they're sound asleep. Finally I head down to the kitchen to sit at the cheap wooden table to drink my mug of tea with Dennys.
He comes to sit across from me and his eyes pin me down.
"Do you wanna talk?" I'm so tired I don't even know where to start. I really want to talk over the day's events with Dennys but he sees the look and puts a hand over mine and nods. "Best go up to bed. We'll save that chat for tomorrow, eh? Chin up." I nod, grateful. I tip the dregs of the sweet tea down my throat and make to stand up when a jarring knock comes from the front door. My nerves are instantly on edge. I stand and go to the front door, peering through the little spy-hole. What I see there has me taking a sharp step backwards and breathing heavily as though I've been punched in the gut. I grit my teeth and slide the chain on before opening the door a crack.
"What the hell do you want? You're not welcome here!" I make to slam the door shut in the intruders face but a hand shoots out and stop me from shutting the door.
"Melanie, please, I need to come in. I need to speak with you. It's important." There's a long pause. I'm about to slam the door shut again anyway, but then, "Please." The tone of voice more than anything else makes me pause; clearly grovelling and pleading with me. I still don't yield. I block all views of the hallway with my body and glare into the intruder's face.
"Give me the slightest reason and I will kick you out faster than you can blink. No funny business, you know your rights." I shut the door and rattle the chain off and open the door again fully. By this time Dennys has come up behind me in case I needed help with a troublesome visitor which I may well still need. I put on a false sweet tone,
"Dennys, may I introduce to you my Father."