Lovely Girls

Amy watches the door, that grimy finger-stained gobbed-on portal to fleeting respite from the ward’s stink. The stink that makes her eyes water and saturates her soul. She tries to shift her bottom, to hold her limbs still for just long enough to hover briefly above the puddle of cold pee that has settled in a trough of rucked-up rubber sheeting. No luck, she sinks back. Flails back, in truth: arms threshing, mouth grimacing and spit flying, right onto the wet sandpaper of the twill draw sheet.

Edie, inches away in the next cot, lets out a guffaw and then shrieks at the air, her hands grappling at something under the sheets. Amy thinks that it is probably a turd, as the night orderly had been too busy with his pet to do a toilet round. She glances over at Julie’s cot in the corner and convulses in a spastic ripple of empathic revulsion.

Amy knows what is going on because she is smart. She is smarter than those people think, with their white coats, their blue epaulettes, and their shiny black, metal-heeled shoes that go clicking and clacking along the mop-damp, foot-stamped corridors. That and she has been a pet.

There is a sliver of enlightenment stealing in through the barred and encrusted god-high windows of the institutions, but not as much as there will be in a decade or so. Even now the smog of crass ignorance in these places is still impenetrable to evidence. Such evidence as would have plucked Amy and her like out of the gloom, re-written their histories and expunged the references to subnormality and idiocy that legitimised their abandonment. Instead here she is, momentarily re-living the crawling nausea of repeated assaults, while looking at poor Julie’s tiny frame, scrambled in its wet sheets where spots of blood are spreading forensically into the soaked up urine.

“Morning, girls.” They are not girls and what does morning mean in a place such as this where time passes in bullet-hard boluses of boredom? But this is Phyllis, and Amy has a soft spot for Phyllis. She convulses again, this time with pleasure, and Phyllis waves. As she does, the waistband of her starched apron rides up with her arm, billowing out the bib so that she looks like a sailing ship. She pulls it all back down again, fusses with the fastenings at the back, and then smooths over the crisp white sheet so it wraps sedately around the sea-green pleats of her uniform, like a manila envelope around an invitation.

Phyllis’s arrival triggers a storm of howling, wailing and clattering as the cot-bound patients seek her attention. Edie hurls the faecal missile she has excavated and it lands with a soft plop on the scuffed linoleum floor. Julie is not howling but she is sitting up, rocking and humming, twiddling the fingers of her left hand in front of her face and gouging at her eye with the thumb of her right.

“Don’t do that, my lovely, or I’ll have to give you sedation and you don’t want that, do you? Big needle in the bottom? Course you don’t.” Phyllis has lots of these one-way conversations and does not seem to worry about the lack of response. She pushes Julie’s hands down and carefully hooks the right one into a leather restraint attached to the side of the cot. Now Julie does howl and starts to hit her face with her free hand, but Phyllis has moved on, having spotted the shit on the floor.

“Mop!” she shouts over her shoulder, and heads off towards the office to get a toilet roll.

We should care about this; we should be shocked and outraged, and we will be, in time, but not now, not in 1963. In 1963, this place is a flagship of progress, an asylum to royalty, and it receives unctuous praise for its modern attitude to the subnormal from the political aristocracy who hope above anything never to have to meet one of its forgotten inmates.

Amy knows it is a sham, but like others here who have been vacant witnesses, she cannot bear witness because her body is not geared to speech. Her body has a brain that makes her look like a marionette in the hands of a four-year-old because Amy has cerebral palsy. But no one will appreciate that for another decade, so no one will take the trouble to ask her how she came to be pregnant in 1945.

The ward door opens again and two men appear, trailing a clanking string of rusty wheelchairs with stained seats. It is bath time. Soon, all Phyllis’s “girls” are stripped naked, dumped into a chair each and trolleyed along the corridor, past kitchens that smell permanently of cabbage, to the industrial checkout of the bath room.

There, a man approaches Edie to heave her out of her chair and deposit her in a vast tub just vacated by someone else. The murky water slops over the edge and pools in the cracks between the stone flags of the floor. “Allyoop, lass,” he says, his breath fogging briefly in the teeth-chattering chill. This is Derek and, while Derek is not quite the full shilling, he is a High Grade, a patient with enough nous to be employed but not enough to notice he does not get paid. He helps with general duties, which, unbelievably, include stripping and washing women who cannot speak. But no matter, these are Low Grades, insensate and so sexually and personally oblivious. Except they are not, but again the few that could object will not be able to do so for many years and by then they will be numb. Not dumb any more, lacking communication and an understanding audience, but numb of heart and will and soul, which will allow hell to freeze in their throats without expression.

Amy knows she is a Low Grade because that is what she was told on arrival.
“Where’s this one going?”
“B32 with the other basket cases.”
“She’s a Low Grade?”
“Dead from the neck up, nothing in the attic.” A proprietorial pause. “Plenty going on in the cellar, though, if you know what I mean.” The orderly had cast her a lingering, lascivious look that Amy had understood well enough to know that it was deeply unwelcome. Her body had failed her, though, juddering and jigging, twitching and lunging by way of idiot confirmation while her mind shrieked horrified impotence. One of her flailing limbs had struck the orderly and he had turned his gaze back to her from his barren paperwork. Hard eyes scanned her up and down and hard knuckles cracked across her face, streaking red smears from the tear made by his heavy signet ring. “You’ll behave yourself around me, Missy.” Then he had felt under her clothes, explored the breasts that had just begun to push out from her chest, and run his fingers down into the soft, new nest of sunlight-pale pubic hair that had also just appeared. “You’ll behave yourself very well with me,” he had added, probing a little further and winking inclusively towards his colleague. “And if he plays his cards right, I’ll let him have a go too.”

So Amy had discovered two things that day: first, that she was a Low Grade and of no account anywhere in this bleak, terrifying world; and second, that she had embarked on a career as an orderly’s whore, a facility, a pet.

The “girls” are back, rattling into the ward to be parked around the immense wooden table at its centre. Amy is steered into a gap next to Maureen whose eyes glitter as if with constant amusement while she picks holes in her head and eats the trophies. Amy is beyond nausea, which is fortunate because lunch has arrived and is being dished out by Phyllis and a new probationer nurse.
“Who wants mash and peas?” the probationer is asking over the hubbub of random squawks, hawks, smacks and slaps.
“No need to ask, love,” Phyllis intervenes, her voice kindly, almost mumsy, ‘they all have everything.”  And they do. Mash, mince, peas, rhubarb, custard and a cup of tea. Except it is not in a cup; it is in the one bowl along with everything else. A crude palette of organic slop slowly blending into a homogenous morass of choleric shade and consistency.
“Saves on washing up.” Phyllis is nipping the tender bud of objection about to emerge from the round O of the probationer’s mouth. “All goes down the same way. See, you go and feed Amy now. Be sure she eats it all.”

Amy watches as the young woman approaches. She flinches as the spoon appears suddenly to the left of her involuntarily averted face and is pushed into her mouth. Amy has been choked before by novices and then slapped for choking. She has spent two days tied, hungry as a street dog, to a pillar in the middle of the ward as punishment. Amy does not want to choke. But this girl is gentle. Inexperienced but gentle. Her eyes are kindly, like Phyllis’s eyes, and she looks often to Phyllis as if for reassurance. Amy wonders if this is Phyllis’s daughter but they do not look much alike. If Amy knew how to judge, she would say that Phyllis had the round, ruddy look of a middle-aged Welsh woman for whom hard graft had been her companion and lifelong lover, while this girl was slight and had a dainty look about her. Instead of Phyllis’s faded cassock black crown, there was a powder-puff of fair curls fluffing out from beneath her neat, white, nurse’s cap.

“She your favourite, is she?” Derek has sidled up to them and is giving the probationer a look he learned long ago and has been trying on with the new girls ever since. Amy knows that look and she propels the bowl out of the nurse’s hand in a sudden paroxysm of revulsion. She knows the look and she knows Derek. Oh yes, she knows Derek.

Phyllis comes rushing over, shouting for mops and buckets and telling Derek to “look sharp and get his backside moving, there are canteen trolleys to be shifted.” Derek himself shifts from leery to laconic then mooches off, casting one vaguely hopeful glance over his shoulder at the three women. Phyllis is soothing the probationer and smearing gravy down her apron as she scrubs ineffectually at the mess with a piece of tow from her pocket.
“You just wipe your eyes, Carrie, no bones broken, just a bit of dinner on the floor.” She turns to Amy, “You too, my lovely,” and she reaches out to both of them, her hands momentarily resting on their shoulders and rubbing that comforting rub mothers employ as a universal healer. She looks at Amy and Carrie: “My two beautiful girls.” They all pause there for a second that stretches and reverberates between a time not far from now when the truth will be known, and another way back when Amy barely knows it herself. There is no breathing in this space, no sound. The air echoes with the emptiness of secrets and groans with the burden of them.

A crash. Edie’s wheelchair has capsized, and the world regains its momentum. But not in Amy’s head because Amy has seen something, remembered something, caught the tail of an understanding that has been suppressed by the horror and tedium, nihilism and victimisation of life in the asylum, the safe place, the prison.

A deep darkness broken by a flood of light. A bed flooded by a sluice of hot, salty fluid. The light comes from a torch, the water from inside her, at first hot then cooling rapidly in the sharp cold of the tiled bathroom with its ranks of night silent, mind drowning tubs. Amy’s body contracts, heaves and flails while a deep, deep pain turns her inside out and cascades more hot fluid out of her and onto the rough sheet.
Dark faces flit in and out of the light as the torch is waved around. There is a hissed back-and-forth exchange that comes from another universe as tides of pain pull Amy in and out of consciousness.

“Get her knees out of the way.” A smell of bleach.
“Well, hold the torch steady. Not up there, down here, stupid. Where do you think it’s coming from, her ear?” Sick-making aftershave.
“Can I look?” Sweat and cabbage.
“Piss off, moron!”
Another voice, softer. “Ssh, you’re frightening her.” Then more loudly, “Try to stay still, Amy love, so we can see what we’re doing.” Who..?
“Hush your voice. Do you want the Night Super down here? Jesus!”
Then Amy howls, a lupine cry from the soul that marks a primeval rite of passage. By the time the echoes have faded, a man unknowing becomes a father, a woman becomes a mother, and a mother loses a child.

Suzanne Conboy-Hill

(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2013.

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Lovely Girls‘ was first published in The Other Room Journal, August 19th, 2011. TORJ is no longer available.