Jean stared down the length of the bridge, squinting through the morning fog to try and see the building of White Isle from where she stood. All she could make out in the thickness was the dark shape of the island itself. The building of the asylum was invisible.
She glanced back at the guardhouse, where the guard leaned against the window, lighting a cigarette.
"Don't see why you'd want to work here," the guard said, tossing his match on the ground. It landed dangerously close to Jean's foot; she sidestepped it.
"You work here, don't you?" she asked.
The guard shrugged. "Don't have to go in the building, and be surrounded by a fat lot of loons."
She pursed her lips and looked back ahead. The letter of acceptance had come that morning, requesting Jean to arrive as soon as possible. So she stood there at the end of the bridge, waiting for the nurse who had been sent to fetch her.
Jean looked up at the telephone wire that ran the length of the bridge to the asylum. Half the ramshackle stone buildings of St. Cyril hadn't electricity, yet White Isle had electricity, telephone lines, and running water, complete with indoor baths and toilets.
Money, Jean thought. That's what it was, of course. White Isle must have been an ideal place for one to put a mentally ill relative. It was isolated, on an island, and anyone who tried to flee the island by swimming could have been dashed upon the rocks.
Thanks to the fog, she was unable to see the sharp white rocks that surrounded the island. She couldn't imagine anyone risking the jump from one of the windows to get away, unless they were mad.
She had to remind herself that those in White Isle truly were mad.
A shape appeared in the fog; tall, slim, dark. As Jean watched, squinting her eyes as if it would make her see better, the shape began to take a more humanly form. A flash of red appeared, vanished, deep blue breaking through the fog…
Jean let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. The figure, which had at first appeared wraith-like, now made itself visible as that of a nurse. Jean could see the nurse wrap her cape tighter about herself, the red flash being the lining of the deep blue fabric. The nurse herself was clad in the dark gray uniform Jean had seen before, the white cap with the red cross on her head.
The sound of her hard leather heels on the wood grew close to Jean's ears, the only sound aside from the lapping of the water against the bridge's support.
The nurse stopped and looked at Jean, then at the guard, and then back at Jean.
"McAuliffe?" she finally asked.
"That's me," Jean replied.
The nurse, a young creature with a long face, smiled at Jean. "I'm Nurse Rose Crain," she said. "I'm here to brief you on what you're to do." She reached under her cape, and pulled out a small folder, handing it to Jean. "Your instructions."
Jean hooked her handbag on her elbow to take the folder, unsure of what to say. The nurse, Crain, extended her hand towards the dark shape of the island.
"Won't you come with me?" she asked.
"Of course." Jean fell in step alongside the nurse, widening her stride to match that of the taller woman.
"I see you're here to be a companion," Crain said.
"Aye," Jean said.
"What made you come here, of all places? White Isle is tucked rather snugly away in our little corner of the world."
Jean searched her brain for a response that would at least make sense to the nurse. "I...I heard that White Isle had a good reputation. For being good. Good...to their patients."
"That it is," said Crain. "That accent's nowhere from round these parts. You come from across the sea?"
Jean wished that the nurse hadn't brought up the subject of her home country. "Aye," she said again. "Dublin."
"What'd you come all the way up here for? Surely word of White Isle can't have reached that far."
Jean stared ahead, desperately praying that Crain would stop talking. "I did some poking around in Manchester," she said.
"So you came from Dublin to Manchester...and then here."
"Ireland's a mess, isn't it? I can see why you left."
The pain of all those years returned, and the lingering remains of two wars on Irish soil crept over the sea and into Jean's bones. "Aye," she muttered. "'Tis a mess."
Crain glanced down at Jean, and for more than a few seconds, she was wonderfully silent.
The building grew more visible as they walked, a giant of a structure upon the turtle-shaped island. Jean couldn't tell if the fog was thinning, or it only seemed so because she was growing closer to the island. She turned and looked over her shoulder. No, the fog wasn't really thinning. She could not longer see the guardhouse, or the shore from where she was.
At last, breaking through the fog, Jean could see the second guardhouse, and the large wheel for the drawbridge. From there, she could see the iron gates that went round the island, but still, so thick was the fog that she couldn't see the asylum building.
Finally they reached the guardhouse, where the guard opened the gates to let them through. Rain from the previous night pooled on the gravel road, and Jean had to look down at the ground so she could side-step the puddles.
"It gets terribly nasty here sometimes," Crain continued, offering her hand to help Jean side-step one patch of mud. "Some days it's so bad they don't let anyone leave the island."
Jean looked up at Crain quickly. "Do you have to stay here?"
"Most people, yes," Crain said. "But you see, we're needed so often most of us just live here, especially the orderlies."
"Live here?" The thought of staying overnight at a place surrounded by the mad sent a chill through Jean's body. "Do you? Live here, I mean."
"I do," Crain said. "I haven't family around these parts, you see. The boarding's as good as free, and we might all have to share two loos, but the food's good enough."
Jean thought of staying at White Isle. If they put up their staff, then she wouldn't have to pay for a room in the village, and Mam and Da didn't have to send her money. "What do you mean by 'as good as free'?"
Crain shrugged, leading Jean up the steps to the building. "Oh, you know. Depending on your wages, they subtract the cost of your room from your pay. So, if you make ten shillings a day-"
"That's a lot of money," Jean said.
"Let me talk!" Crain said with a laugh. "It's an example. Say you make ten shillings a day. If you board here, they'll take about one shilling. That's the percentage, I think. Ten percent. I'm not good with numbers."
"What am I to do if I want to live here?"
"I would talk to Nurse Mason. She's the head of staff."
Jean nodded. Perhaps, she thought, it would be best for me to live here.
Once more she found herself approaching the white brick building. Oddly enough, it was almost a welcoming, cheery place, with green shutters at each window, and flowerboxes on every ground floor window. Evergreen shrubs surrounded the building, and the grounds sported a few trees and gardens where Jean could see some people working. A white-clad orderly stood by with a nurse, watching the people who were tending to the sprouting gardens.
Jean looked away with a shiver. The people in the garden must have been patients.
Crain led Jean on a walkway that went around the back of the building; as the fog began to thin, Jean looked upon a smaller, two-story building that was attached to the asylum by nothing more than a covered cobblestone walk.
"Those are the staff living quarters," said Crain. "There's a side for the male orderlies, and the other side is for the nurses."
"Does Doctor Blevins live here?" Jean asked.
"Oh, no," Crain replied. "He lives in the village. He goes home at the end of the day. You know, he's one of only a handful of people who owns a motorcar here in the village."
"Oh?" Jean smiled, despite herself. She couldn't imagine being one of a few to own a motorcar. People might have been asking for a ride. She guessed that Blevins wasn't the type of person to lend his motorcar out to people, however.
"Before we begin today," Crain went on, leading Jean towards the staff quarters, "you'll have to get a uniform."
"I figured as much." Jean looked down at her gray coat and green skirt. The last thing she wanted was for it to be stained, torn, or otherwise damaged.
Crain opened the door, revealing a small room with nothing but a table in the center and a door on the other side. Crain's slim hand vanished underneath her cape, and later emerged producing a key.
"The door on the right is for the men's quarters," Crain said. "This door…" She paused, inserting the key. Jean heard the click of the lock before Crain pulled the door open. "This door is to the women's quarters. Only women have the women's key, and only men have the men's key. It was Doctor Blevins' idea."
"He thinks far ahead," Jean said, pondering the benefits of being separated from the men at White Isle.
"That he does." The door opened up to a dark stairwell with a door at the end. Crain started up the stairs, her shoes creaking on the old wood. "We even dine separately."
Jean was silent as she followed Crain up the stairs. The stairs opened to a narrow hallway with doors on either side. Most of the doors were open, and as Jean looked in one of the rooms, she could see one bad, and stacked bunks opposite the bed, with a few dressers.
Crain led Jean into a room, where floral curtains hung from the small window. The single bed wasn't made, and there were several open books on the bottom bunk. The top bunk was bare.
A pale gray frock hung on a chair, complete with an apron that sported a red cross on the chest. Crain paused, folding her hands together.
"I hope it's your size," she said. "Doctor Blevins told me you were small, so I found the smallest size available."
"It should work," Jean said, glancing over it.
She looked back at Crain. Crain, seeming to understand, backed out of the room. "You can leave your clothes on the chair. I'll be in the hall," she said, shutting the door behind her.
The silence that followed Crain's departure from the room was almost like a fresh breath of air. Jean pulled off her hat, and set her handbag and the folder on the chair. As she unbuttoned her coat, she looked down at the open books on the bed, and peered closer at them to see their subject. There was a notebook, with a pencil, next to the books. Whoever had been in the books had taken a pencil to them and written notes, circling here and there. Jean pulled off her coat and lifted one of the books so she could see the spine.
A Study of Law, 5th Edition
Jean set the book down as she began to unbutton her blouse. Whoever was studying the books had some high expectations. There weren't many women in the field of law.
She pulled off her skirt, and fetched the gray frock, pulling it on over her body, and buttoning up the front. It had a high, stiff collar that itched at Jean's neck as she buttoned it up. She buttoned the cuffs and glanced at the mirror that hung on the door. The gray made her skin look more pale than it already was. She pulled the apron on and tied it in back, and looked at the mirror again, pinning back a few more of her red curls that had come undone when she pulled off her hat.
She folded her clothes and set them on the chair, and stopped. She was unsure of where she was to leave her handbag. She had no money in it, but the pocket-watch…
She reached into the handbag and pulled the pocket-watch out. After flipping it open to make sure it was still ticking, she slipped it in her frock pocket, grateful that the pocket was deep. She could feel the weight of the watch, a comfort to her.
To lose it meant to lose everything. It had become almost a lifeline to her; the only way to discovering the truth could be found in the pocket-watch.
The sound of the floorboards creaking outside the door reminded Jean that she had work to do. She slipped her hand in her pocket to make sure that the pocket-watch was safe and secure, before she snatched up the folder, opened the door and went into the hall to begin her work day.
Jean took a deep breath, focusing on the tray in her trembling hands. The lid of the teapot rattled as she carried the tray up the stairs, and she had to pause to keep herself stable. She looked up the stairway, at the flickering electric light on the wall. There was no sound but the hum of electricity, like the soft murmur of voices about her.
She lifted her feet and continued up the stairs. So far she had only sat and read to some patients in the common room, but now she had to go to a patient's room to deliver his meal.
She had tried to tell the old nurse that she wasn't supposed to deliver meals to the patients in their rooms; that was an orderly's job. It had clearly stated in the folder that, as a companion, she wasn't to deliver meals, as if a patient began to choke, she had no idea what to do.
Voices carried down the stairwell. Jean looked up again, seeing two white-clad men trotting down the steps together, one of them lighting a cigarette as he went. Jean paused on the landing, moving aside to let the orderlies pass. The one lighting the cigarette, a burly, brown-skinned man, glanced at Jean as she moved out of the way.
"Look at this," he said, pausing and jabbing the other orderly in the arm. "She's new, isn't she?"
Jean's face burned, and she hurried up the stairs. She heard a whistle behind her, and paused to look over her shoulder, seeing the two orderlies nudging each other and grinning up at her.
She looked back ahead. There was a door, to the floor she needed to be. She went as fast as she dared with the tray, pausing only to fumble at the knob and fling the door open, stepping into the faint odor of bleach.
She leaned her back against the door to regain her breath, listening for the voices again. There was laughter, a few words she couldn't make out, before they faded from her hearing.
A shudder crept through her, but she forced herself onward, glancing down the long row of doors to see if she could spot the number for the room she was to visit. There was no-one in the hall, the emptiness adding to the disturbance she already felt.
A hum from the radiators in the hall sounded, again, like the hum of many voices. Jean took a deep breath. She had already been around a few patients, but the thought of being alone with one…
Room 38. Howard, E., read the name beneath the room number. She spotted it easily, and balanced the tray on one hand to fetch the key from her pocket. After fetching it, and fumbling to fit it in the lock, she pushed at the door, realizing that she had to pull the door out instead.
She returned the key to her pocket and stepped into the room, shutting the door behind her. The smell of burning pipe-tobacco reached her ears, a light haze hanging about the room.
It was a large, well-furnished room, being evident that it was a room for long-term patients. The bed in the corner had a thick quilt upon it, with various mismatched pillows, complete with a dresser, and there was even a large desk against the wall, with a chair under the window. Several paintings hung on the wall; one of them caught her eye: it was of a smiling young woman, who almost resembled Jean herself.
She shook her head. She was just being frightened.
From where she stood, Jean could see the patient sitting in the chair by the window. He was bent over, smoking a pipe and staring through the metal bars of the window.
"Afternoon," she said.
The man in the chair didn't look up. He sat there puffing on his pipe, his head turned away. All Jean could see of him was his head of dark curls, his hand holding the pipe.
"I've brought your lunch," she said, going forward to the desk to set the tray there.
She set it down, glancing at the man again. His hands were bound with bandages, and as he lowered the pipe from his mouth, she saw the faintest stain of blood. She felt no discomfort; she had grown quite used to seeing her fair share of blood.
"Nurse Weathers has instructed me to sit with you while you eat."
He turned to her, looking up. Jean nearly gasped, alarmed at his visible youth. He was hardly more than a boy, his eyes large and dark and...she couldn't place it. Terrified?
He simply stared at her. His eyes were sunken in his face, which looked worn thin. She spotted pink scarring on his jaw, and as her eyes fell on it, he raised a hand, as if hiding it.
"Won't you eat?" Jean asked, turning her attention away from the scar.
"I'm not hungry," he said.
His voice sent a shudder through her. It had a hint of weariness, but it was the voice of a man.
"Come now, Mister Howard," she managed to say. "I'm sure you can't turn down some potatoes and sausage. There's even tea."
He didn't remove his eyes from her. "Might I have sugar?"
She forced a smile for his sake. "Of course," she said.
She turned to the tray, and poured the tea in the cup, fetching a few lumps of sugar to put in the tea. As she did so, she heard the chair creak as patient Howard rose to his feet. She added cream to the tea, not looking up, simply focusing on preparing Howard's lunch.
She turned with the cup in her hand. Howard was right beside her; the sudden closeness of it startled her. She gasped and nearly dropped the cup, but managed to stop herself before she did so.
"You startled me," Jean said, watching as Howard took the cup of tea in his hands.
He did so gracefully enough with the bandages wrapped around his hands, and he kept his eyes fixed on her as he sipped his tea.
"I'm supposed to join you," Jean said. "I mean, sit with you."
"Please do," he said. He motioned to the seat by the window. "You can sit there."
"Mister Howard, I'm sure I'm not supposed to..."
He ignored her, seating himself on the deep windowsill. The pipe he had sat aside; he cracked the window open to tap out the ashes from the bowl before shutting it against the sudden chill.
Seeing no use in objecting to his kind gesture, Jean handed Howard his plate of food and seated herself in the chair, looking up at the paintings. They all had the same style, she noticed, and as she moved her eyes to the desk, she could see a few paintbrushes in a mug, and a stack of what looked to be watercolor paper. The paintings, she thought, must have been patient Howard's himself. He had lovely talent, from her perspective, but the woman who resembled her was beginning to discomfort her.
The clink of silverware on the plate made Jean turn her head; Howard had the plate in his lap, and was silently eating, his gaze fixed on the gray sea that spread on from the view of his window. He chewed each bite deliberately and thoughtfully, as if it took a great amount of mental energy simply to eat a meal.
She wondered why he was in White Isle. His demeanor did not speak to her of strong insanity, though she could tell, simply from his aura, that there was indeed something wrong with him.
She also found herself pondering over the scarring on his face. He could have gotten it from anywhere. Having been dragged along with Da as he made emergency visits to places like farms, Jean had grown accustomed to seeing injuries from farm tools and equipment. This patient Howard could have gotten his scarring from that—but what was a man as young as he doing at White Isle?
He glanced at her as he set his plate down to get his tea.
"You don't talk much," he said.
"Oh," Jean said, almost with a laugh. "Well, I don't want to bother you while you're eating."
"I'm not eating anymore."
This time, she did laugh. Howard stared at her, and as he did, his brows drew together, and his eyes darkened.
"Why are you laughing at me?"
She stopped. "I don't know," she said. "I mean, I'm not laughing at you, I simply—"
He stood up suddenly, alarming Jean, who flinched in her seat, pressing herself into it as if it was some sort of defense. Howard shook a finger at her, his face twisting in anger.
"You're laughing at me because I'm mad," he said. "You think it's funny."
"No," Jean protested. "No, I don't think you're mad..."
She immediately knew she shouldn't have spoken such words. He flung the teacup against the window, where it shattered, flinging bits of porcelain and the remaining tea at Jean. She covered her face, shutting her eyes, but rough hands grabbed her by her arms and pulled her to her feet.
Jean's hands were pried away from her face, and she opened her eyes to see Howard's furious face inches from hers. A whimper of terror escaped her as he shook her.
"You don't think I'm mad?" he said, his fingers digging into her skin. "Then tell me why I'm here."
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. He shook her again.
"Mister Howard, please," Jean begged. "Please let me go." If he was truly raving mad, then he could hurt her, or even go so far as to kill her.
She tried to force that thought out of her brain. There was a reason he was under lock and key, and this must have been it.
"You're not yourself," Jean said, attempting to avoid outright telling him he was insane. "You're here because you need help."
"Help?" he echoed. His eyes wandered up from her face, his expression softening. His gaze fixed on something behind her. A look of confusion came over him, and he looked back at Jean.
"Marie," he said, softly, almost a whisper.
Jean pulled out of his grip, but he reached for her face, his fingers slipping into her curls, his other hand gripping her chin to keep her from turning her head. Jean tried to back away, glancing toward the door, seeing that it was only a few feet away…
She twisted her head, trying to use her hands to push him away, but he brought her closer, holding her face, his fingers tangled in her hair. Jean's throat felt tight with panic, her arms shaking, but feeling weak and ineffective in her defense. She had no idea what Howard might have done to her, as he turned her head this way and that, and though he was small, he was strong.
Almost a sign from above, the door to the room opened, and a white-clad orderly stepped in, immediately lunging forward at Howard.
"Howard!" he barked, grabbing the patient's arms and pulling them back, freeing Jean.
Jean stepped back, snatching up the tray from the desk, and turning to the door to flee the room. Someone else stepped in: a short man, removing a syringe from the breast pocket of his white coat. Jean stood by, watching as the orderly forced Howard on the bed, pinning his arms down as Howard spat and cursed at them, fighting the orderly's grip to try and scratch at his face. The man in the white coat pulled the cap from the syringe needle, waiting as the orderly rolled Howard's sleeve up.
Howard shrieked; a ghastly, inhuman noise that forced Jean to put the tray down and cover her ears. His eyes were fixed on her as the needle went into the skin of his arm. She watched him, terrified by the look on his face as the orderly held him down. Soon, however, his face went slack, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He went limp, silent, and his head fell back on his pillow. The orderly set to work fixing the straps of the bed over Howard's body, as the man in the white coat stepped back.
"That's the first time he's had a fit like that in almost two years," he said. Jean recognized his voice, and she felt the color drain from her face. It was Doctor Blevins himself.
The orderly finished with the straps, and turned to Blevins, who was examining the shattered teacup and the tea dripping from the window. "I think it was her," he said, jerking a thumb in Jean's direction. "The nurse who reported the noise said that the girl must have caused it."
Blevins noticed her for the first time, and turned to her, his expression cold. He approached her, and grabbed her arm, steering her out of the room. He shut the door behind him, releasing Jean's arm.
"What were you doing in there?" he demanded.
"Delivering the patient's food," Jean said, rubbing her arm. "Sir, I know I'm not supposed to, but a nurse handed me the tray and made me. I tried to tell her that I wasn't supposed to."
He reached up with one hand and rubbed at his temple, staring at a knot of wood in the floor. "Which nurse was it?"
"I don't know. She was older."
"Mason," he muttered to himself. "Woman never does as she's told." He lifted his head. "I'll speak to her about this. Howard has the possibility to become quite dangerous."
"What's wrong with him, sir?"
"Nothing you should concern yourself with at the moment." He lifted his arm, pulling up his sleeve to check his watch. "I understand you have further duties, Miss McAuliffe?"
"Yes, sir," Jean said. She reached in her pocket, pulling out the key to Howard's room. She held it out to Blevins, who stared at it for a few seconds before seeming to realize that he was to take it. He took it from her hand and pocketed it.
"If you'll excuse me, Miss McAuliffe, I too have work to attend to," he said, turning towards the door of Howard's room. "I can't waste my day standing about."
"Of course, sir."
He opened the door and disappeared inside the room. The emptiness that followed him sent a chill down Jean's spine, and she hurried towards the stairway, trying to fight the rising tears of shame. Her arms were already sore from being shaken, but she was more sore from the shame of doing something wrong on her first day of work.
She went down the stairs, inwardly lamenting that this was the only way she could find out the truth for herself.
He had seen that face before. It was the face of a woman who no longer smiled in life, but smiled trapped in watercolor behind glass and bound in wood. Why had she come to him now, when he was beginning to forget her?
He hadn't wanted to hurt her. He only wanted to see if there was some mask she wore. All he wanted to do was peel that mask away and see the wolf hiding beneath the sheep's clothes. It couldn't be her...but it was.
Marie, Marie, with the enchanting eyes. Those eyes that he only remembered being open, gazing at the black nothingness of death. This time, they were alive, full of light and youth and beauty.
And she laughed at him. She mocked him for being mad, saying that he needed help, of all things. Marie, Marie, how could you do this to me? I tried to keep you safe from all of this. Why does your ghost haunt me?
And so he lay there, trapped on his bed, straining at his bonds, being forced to stare again at that mocking smile. If only there was some way to tell her he was sorry.
If only there was some way he could see her again.