Authors: Bill Douglas
John was burning. He heard a funny noise, a rasping â his own breathing. Something was on his face. He couldn't move. Everything was swirling, then fading.
In and out of dreams, he fancied he could hear Heather's voice, feel her holding his hand. She floated among the white-coats.
Now he was awake. Everything was blurred. Funny smell. He wriggled, uncomfortable and sweating. He was in a bed, lying on something smooth yet lumpy, like a horsehair mattress.
A white-coated man was peering at him. “You're awake.”
He tried to speak, but couldn't. He felt up around his mouth â he was wearing a mask of some kind. He moved it to one side and managed a hoarse whisper. “Where am I?”
“You're on Infirmary Ward, in Springwell Mental Hospital. That's an oxygen mask.” The white-coated man put it back on his face.
What was he doing here? Felt like he'd survived a good kicking. His chest ached and his throat was on fire. He wanted to raise himself, but his left hand felt shackled.
“Don't move!” A crisp command. “You're on a drip.” The white-coated man put a hand on his shoulder to keep him still.
What? This was
face. He lifted the mask with his right hand. “Why?”
“You've been critical with pneumonia.” The man leaned over â and John felt the mask back on his face. “Keep that on. You still need it to breathe properly.”
That was better. Anyway, talking hurt.
“Doc Burn gave you penicillin right away and it's worked wonders. You're out of danger.”
âOut of danger'. Nearly died. Helpless, sleepy, he slid into unconsciousness.
John awoke. Something stank â like fumes, powerful and nasty. His head felt it had been stamped on. But he could see more clearly. And that mask was off his face. He could breathe okay. He shifted his body and realised the drip had gone.
Using his hands and elbows, he raised himself and looked around. Giddifying, but he could see. His bed was near the end of a long row.
He heard demented crying. White-coats were clustering round a bed, opposite and along the row. The crying ceased.
A dressing-gowned man was coming his direction from down the ward. Head bowed, the man shuffled to the bottom of John's bed, then stopped, mumbling. Gibberish? The man looked up, gripped the bedstead's iron rail and stared, wild-eyed, straight at him.
Disconcerting. Was this madness? Closer now, the man looked younger â middle-aged, maybe.
“Hello, what's wrong?” John croaked.
“You,” shouted the man, pointing at him.
“Me?” He braced himself.
The man whirled round and, muttering, with head bowed, shuffled away.
He watched the man go slowly down the ward â head still bowed and not turning to right or left.
The white-coats now stood talking. Were they doctors â or these wretched ânurses', like Sarge and his henchmen? He closed his eyes and slumped back onto the pillow. He didn't want to see Sarge and co again â except some day in that dark alley.
His bed was shaking. An earthquake? No. The dressing-gowned one had reappeared at the end of the bed, tugging at the bed-rail with both hands and yelling.
This man was strong â and crazy.
He dragged himself up onto an elbow. Through a wave of stars, he saw a white-coat appear and take the man by the arm. “C'mon professor. Back to your own bed.” The man said something that sounded unintelligible but abusive, released his grip on the bed-rail, and raised a clenched fist towards John. A white-coated reinforcement came, and the man was led off muttering.
The dizziness gone, he raised himself to sitting and watched the party go down the ward to near the other end. He heard shouting as the man was bundled into bed. Loud groaning was followed by silence.
He lay back, grateful for the white-coats' intervention. He could normally handle all this, without hurting anyone. But right nowâ¦
He remembered from long ago the words of his grandpa â a Great War soldier, standing looking very sad â to his da. “Some men went doolally, right off their heads. Fought like wildcats. Didn't know their own strength.”
A white-coat was at his bedside, holding a thermometer. “I'll take your temperature and feel your pulse.” The same Irish voice as before.
“Wait,” he croaked. “Who are you?”
“I'm Mr Macnamara, the Charge Nurse â that means I'm in charge of this Infirmary Ward. Now, can you please open your mouth, Mr Chisholm.”
He did so, staring back at Macnamara, and accommodated the thermometer under his tongue.
“Take his pulse, Tommy.” Another white-coated man, that he hadn't noticed on the other side of his bed, leaned across and grabbed his wrist. “Mr Niven here's a nursing assistant,” the Charge Nurse said, “and,” nodding towards the end of the bed, towards another white-coat, “that's Mr Maclean, who's a staff nurse and my deputy.”
Intensive caring â or a show of strength?
“Like me,” Macnamara continued, “Mr Maclean is doubly qualified â the only other man in Springwell that knows his physical as well as his mental.”
The man's tone and demeanour were calming, though he was a show-off. The âdoubly qualified' â did that mean like ordinary nurses as well? Or did âphysical' mean they could take care of themselves in a fight?
Macnamara added, “As well as knowing my physical and psychological medicine, I'm trained in martial arts.” The man had read his thoughts. “Mr Maclean is too. So if you're thirsting after a fight, don't try anything here.”
He wouldn't. He couldn't take a handshake, never mind a beating.
Macnamara smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. “It's okay â I know you'll be done in.” Reading his mind again? “It'll be a few days, maybe weeks, before you're real fit. Sure I'm glad you pulled through. I'd have bet against it. You must have one helluva constitution.”
He felt the thermometer being removed. Macnamara examined it. “Still up a bit. Pulse, Tommy?”
“Right, you're on the road to recovery, Mr Chisholm. But I guess it'll be a while before we can let you go from here.”
“Home?” His spirits lifted.
“No,” said Macnamara, stepping back as though shocked. “Another ward.”
Trapped in this bin. “Why?”
“You'll need treatment for your breakdown. I guess you'll have to stay in Springwell a long while yet.” Macnamara held up a hand as if to signal the end of debate. “Now, John Chisholm, we need to give you medicine.”
“I don't want it.” He was hopelessly weak and achy. His voice was stronger again, though his throat was scorched.
Macnamara frowned. “You must have it. First, the penicillin that's saved your life. We've given you injections every few hours since you came here.” He smiled. “And now it's time for that. We'll give your arms a rest. Go on your side, facing Mr Niven over there, and bare your bum for the needle.”
He didn't like this. But he complied with the order, and faced Niven, whose bulging black eyes stared through him. He closed his eyes.
He heard Macnamara's “Over to you, Eddie,” and glimpsed Maclean moving round from the end of the bed. Ouch. The jab in the bum.
“Now a couple of spoonfuls of paraldehyde to knock you out. Go on your back again and sit up.”
He could smell the horrible stuff. “I'm not having that.”
“You are, and if you won't swallow it, we'll jab it into you. You'll need it to help you sleep.” Macnamara smiled. “Right?”
“I'll take the dope.” Turning to sit up again, his vision blurred and then cleared.
Macnamara, now at the end of the bed, was passing a bottle and spoon to Maclean. Spoonfuls of the now familiar foul-smelling liquid went down John's throat.
At least, he thought, I know what it's called. Paraldehyde
As both parents were out almost all day, Heather had welcomed having a quiet pressure-free time with Becky.
Now â the evening meal over and Becky asleep upstairs â Heather settled into an armchair opposite her parents on the settee. It was time to talk.
“Tell us what happened.” Father sucked a biro pen. (He used to smoke those dreadful cigars. Could he have given up?). “How did John end up in the loony bin?”
“It's not a loony bin.” Heather's cheeks were warming. It wasn't just the words â there was something about his tone.
“Father means the asylum,” said Mother, glancing at Father, who grunted.
She'd known it wouldn't be easy. And hadn't she herself always called it the loony bin? She took a deep breath, straightened her back and leant forward. “No. Springwell is no longer an asylum. John is in a hospital,” she said, firmly and slowly, looking squarely at each of her parents in turn, “a mental hospital.”
Her parents huddled together more closely. “Well, whatever,” said Father. “It's where they always send the nutters.”
“Ssh,” said Mother, glancing at him again and nudging him with her elbow. “You mean the lunatics.” Both now seemed to be frowning.
Something volcanic within was about to erupt. They classed John as a madman, a creature somehow inferior. She stood up and glared at them. She could see the shock on Mother's face, the unchanging bland expression on Father's.
How dare they talk about her beloved John like this? Ignoring her father's curt “Sit down, Heather,” and her mother's “Yes dear, do,” she paced over towards the drawn curtains â taking deep breaths. She calmed, walked slowly back and sat down.
“We've got off on the wrong track,” said Father, and Mother added, “Sorry.”
“Well, I know you don't much like John ” â she ignored the protestations â “but I love him. And he's not really mad. He's been critically ill with pneumonia and he nearly died.” She paused.
Both were looking contrite, Mother possibly sympathetic.
Heather added, her eyes moistening, “He shouldn't be in that dreadful place. He could be there months, or years.”
Now they both looked uncomfortable. Father scratched among his white mop of hair. Mother was looking down â studying the pattern on the carpet?
“And he might never get out.” She drew her sleeve across her face.
It was clear they were struggling for words. “Surely he will,” said Mother. “Look, I need another cup. I'll go fill the teapot.”
Mother never was strong in emotional situations. Avoidance and distraction. “Good idea, Mother. I'll check on Becky.”
Father stretched and yawned. Or more probably he feigned a yawn â “A tried and tested way to give yourself space to think,” he once told her. He was never one to display his feelings either. “I'll help,” he said, following Mother to the kitchen.
She crept upstairs. Becky lay on her back, eyes closed, breathing softly.
Heather stood entranced. She'd always be there for her child, like Granny was for her. These terrible months after the birth would have been tough for Becky â something she'd never considered while she was depressed. She was doing her best to make it up and would never again let Becky down.
John was a great dad; but he couldn't be there for Becky now. This insane jealousy that surfaced recently â and led to the loony bin! She'd never had an affair, but he didn't believe her.
What went wrong between her and Mother? On the Social Studies degree, she'd been moved by Bowlby's research on maternal deprivation. Bonding in the early years was considered important to later wellbeing. She'd bonded with Granny, and could still draw support from imaginary talks with her.
Heather jerked round, half expecting to see Granny. Mother was tiptoeing from the doorway, to stand looking into the crib and whisper, “My lovely granddaughter. She reminds me of you as a baby; you slept on your back too.”
Mother turned away and began moving quietly out of the room. “Tea's made. Come when you're ready,” she whispered, and disappeared.
Heather continued standing. She'd glimpsed a different side to Mother â something maternal. All these years ago, Mother had watched her sleeping.
“A reminder â tea's brewed.” Father was in the doorway.
She enjoyed one last look at Becky â a picture of contentment and peace. This, she reminded herself, was what really mattered here. She'd come to ensure help for her and Becky, not John.
She went downstairs. Mother finished pouring tea into the china cups and sat down on the settee beside Father.
She took her cup and sipped the warm liquid. “Thanks. Having a break was a good idea, Mother.” She paused. Both parents looked anxious. “I'm really worried, not just about John, but about Becky and me.”
“Yes dear,” said Mother. “So are we.”
Sounded encouraging. “I mean, I'm not sure we'll have enough to live on. John started teaching only last September and I don't know what sick pay he'll get â if any. Or if he'll keep his job.” She paused. She hated playing the sympathy card. “It's Becky and her future, that's what I care about. And,” she added, aware she was blushing, “as well as being my parents, you're the only folk I know with money.”
Her parents were looking at each other. “Well,” said Father, “it grieves us to see you in this situation.”
“And we do care about you and Becky,” Mother added.
“You could come and live with us,” said Father. “It's only a council house you're in.”
She hadn't expected this. She didn't want it. And the insinuation about her home being â
a council house' was derogatory. “No. What I'm saying is, can you please, if need be, see I get enough money so that Becky doesn't suffer?”
Her parents were again looking at each other. They were hesitating. Their only child and grandchild needed
support â and they were hesitating! “Of course,” said Father, “we'll do what we can to help.” He coughed. “You know, Heather, you probably have grounds for divorce if he's pronounced insane.”
They wanted her and Becky away from John. She rose. “Time for bed â I'm tired.” On the way out of the room, she looked back. Her parents sat staring at her. They looked wretched. “Goodnight and thanks,” she added. “See you tomorrow.”
She tiptoed upstairs and pulled the door to. Becky was asleep.
She stretched out on the bed. Shocking, how they talked about John! And their hesitation about helping â and the way they'd looked at each other â was odd. âWe'll try, do what we can' was scarcely reassuring. Had the well run dry? Was there a worrying secret?
Lurking deep within her was a vision of the workhouse Granny had feared. A grim safety net for the poor, but this was the Britain of the welfare state.
Through the night, haunting spectres of her Springwell visit wouldn't let her rest. Something was gnawing at her. When she'd asked how John got so ill, the nurse mentioned hypothermia. And she'd been outraged at the idea John might have had it before he went in. But of course, John had been soaking â said he jumped in the river.
Did he mean to kill himself? And if so, what brought him to that? Had she been too engrossed with Becky over the weeks before Easter to listen to him when he was troubled? And he was monosyllabic when she asked about work that last evening together. Had he been sacked?
Did she overreact when he picked up the knife? He scowled and shouted â but would he have done anything? She'd panicked. His removal to the loony bin was her fault. If he hadn't gone there, he'd have been treated for pneumonia at the local infirmary. She must ring Springwell.
Next day, with Mother at work, and Becky asleep, Heather got the okay to ring Springwell. She went into the front hall and dialled. Mr Macnamara was off duty, she was told, and nobody was available to speak to her. The brush-off!
She stomped back to the living room and told Father about the call. He shrugged and sighed.
She paced round the room. “The trouble is, they don't let you just drop in. Visiting's only allowed once a month. I'm worried about John. They thought he was dying. That's why they summoned me. I must see him, or at least find out how he is.”
“How can you see him, if they won't let you in?” her father queried.
Not Father of old. He might have offered to blast fortress walls for her. She walked over to gaze out the window. An unmown lawn, weeds galore. Something was wrong. Tonight, she'd press them about this â Mother's headaches, and a âterrible thing' Granny referred to mysteriously long ago.
She should get home. John was now her main worry. She could use Elsie's phone and, if need be, enlist the mental man's help. Tomorrow, maybe. Tonight â her parents!
“Father, can you drive me back tomorrow, please? I meant to stay longer, but I really should get home, in case Springwell ring for me. And someone I know could probably get news of him.”
Father scratched his head. “Mother will be disappointed. But yes. I've got something on here that'll swallow up most of the day. I'll take you after I've brought Mother home.”
In the evening, Heather was the disappointed one. Mother arrived ashen-faced, pecked her on the cheek, said “Raging headache, need my bed, darling,” and went upstairs.
Later, with Becky settled upstairs, Heather returned to the living room. “Look Father, I know there's something not okay with you. Before I went to university â”
Father cut in. “Right, Heather. My health is fine.” He cleared his throat. “But I had to leave the bank earlier than plannedâ¦” He was gazing at the carpet. “Mergers, a managerial cull, and I lost out.” This would be painful, for a proud man that she couldn't remember ever moaning to her. “Mother went back part-time to boost finances, but finds it hard.” He rose, yawning. “Must go up.” He looked her in the eye. “Heather, we'll see that you and Becky have the support you need.”
“Thanks.” It was enough for now. Some light on Granny's worrying comment from long ago (though vivid as yesterday) â and on Mother's headaches â would have to wait.
That night, she lay awake thinking. For as long as she could remember, Mother had often gone to bed early with a headache. She could still see Granny, brow furrowing, standing over her and saying, “Heather, there are bad days when dark clouds come over your mother â and me.”
Even more powerful was the day (she was nine) she saw Granny staring at the ceiling and shaking a clenched fist. As though kind caring Granny, always there for her granddaughter, had gone into another world.
It'd been scary. “What is it, Granny?”
Granny, looking down at her, said, “Once a terrible thing came to try us, Heather dear â you'll understand when you grow up,” then smiled and changed the subject.
But she never did learn what that âterrible thing' was, and she hadn't asked her parents about it. She knew what she'd heard. It was time they told her.
After tea next day â still pondering a surprisingly tearful goodbye to Mother â Heather was homeward bound. Seated in the front beside Father â with Becky asleep in the crib at the back. They were on a clear stretch of dual carriageway. Her opportunity.
“Father, I'm worried about Mother's headaches and what's causing them.”
“They started long ago, but they're worse now she's working again.”
“When I was a girl, Granny said something terrible happened, and I was too young to be told.”
He was frowning, “Ancient history. Can't talk without Mother, anyway.”
So the âterrible thing' remained a mystery.
At the other end, Heather got her father to drop her outside the shop. She'd welcome having tea with the older couple, but she would not stay overnight. It was time to face the demons lurking at home.