The psych nurse is in his office, hunched over the desk in a bubble of light, finishing off the paperwork.
‘Go ahead and introduce yourself,’ he says, without looking up. ‘I won’t be a minute.’
The corridor is dark, but all the lights in the assessment room are on. Despite this, Geraldine has managed to fall asleep, curled up on her side on two foam chairs pushed together. Her mother is awake, though, watching from an opposite chair. A worn, desiccated woman in her late seventies, she leans forward on her knees almost in an attitude of prayer.
‘Hi. We’ve come to take Geraldine to Willow Brook.’
Her mother smiles, then reaches out and gently rests a hand on Geraldine’s shoulder.
‘Come on darling. Wake up. Time to go.’
It’s like her mother has touched a switch. Geraldine instantly rights herself, glances around.
‘I’m cold,’ she says.
‘We’ll fetch you a blanket.’
‘I’m sorry we’re having to take you so far out of town,’ I say. ‘Bed shortage, I’m afraid.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ says the mother.
Maybe it’s simply a function of the medication, or Geraldine’s condition, or both, exacerbated by the early hour, but whatever the reason she seems strangely docile, like a robot perfect in every detail except the emotion.
Her spangly flip-flops swish and slap along the floor as she follows us along the corridor; her long, black hair hangs like filament wire.
On the ambulance Geraldine lies down on the trolley with the minimum amount of adjustment and fuss; she is asleep again by the time her mother has kissed her goodbye, thanked us for our help and walked back down the stairs.
‘See you tomorrow, darling,’ she says. ‘Sleep well.’ And hurries away.
A psych nurse meets us at the main entrance to Willow Brook. As wide as she is tall, she looks like someone sealed off her uniform at the cuffs and shoes and pumped her full of gloop.
‘Ah. Another customer,’ she says. ‘Welcome. Welcome.’ She turns and leads us back through a laminate floored atrium decorated with paintings and abstract sculptures, more like an after-hours art gallery than a psychiatric hospital.
‘You could hold dances in the corridor,’ I say.
‘Oh we do, we do!’ she wheezes. ‘We have a lot of fun here, believe you me.’
Eventually we arrive at the ward door and she swipes us in. There is a security-glassed office to the right, overlooking the spot-lit zones of the communal area, and the shadowy reaches of the corridors beyond.
‘I’ll show Geraldine to her bed,’ says the nurse. ‘Why don’t you go in the office and I’ll bring you both in a nice cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’
I watch them go, the nurse rolling ahead, Geraldine drawn in her wake.
A doctor is in the office, finishing a report. Behind her is a wipe board with all the names of the patients, their section status and length of stay, a couple of filing cabinets, and then an imposing rack of shelves, full of reports and journals, box and clip files, psychiatric text books and a range of more populist self-help guides. It’s absolutely quiet, apart from the scritching of the doctor’s pen, and the slurred buzz of a wasp, butting around the casing of a fluorescent light.
‘Here we are then! Two teas!’ says the nurse, struggling in through the door. ‘That’s okay – I can manage!’
She sets them down on the desk then sits on an office chair. It creaks alarmingly.
But someone has come to the door. A gaunt face, pressed up against the glass.
‘Mary!’ says the nurse. ‘No! You’re not going home today!’
She struggles up and goes over. When she opens the door, Mary tries to walk in, but the nurse simply stands in her way and Mary can’t get past.
‘My friends will be wondering where I am. They’ll be worried.’
‘They know exactly where you are, Mary and trust me, they won’t be worried at all. We’re not going to discharge you now, are we, sweetheart? Not at four o’clock in the morning! What would people think?’
‘No, Mary. Now go on back to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning. Go on. Back you go.’
Mary leaves, pausing only briefly in front of the main office window, staring inside at us like we’re disappointing fish in an aquarium.
‘Go on, Mary!’
She glides away.
The doctor looks up – whether at Mary, or to think about something, it’s not clear – then down again.
The nurse swishes back over to her chair and plumps herself back down again.
‘Like we’re going to let her loose in the streets in the early hours! What would the papers say! I don’t know. They act like the Queen Mother, half the time. Working to their own little timetables. Up all hours of the night. No concept of what normal people do.’ But then she frowns, as if she’s inadvertently said too much. ‘Bless ‘em!’ she adds.
The doctor sighs, puts the report in her bag, goes out.
‘Do you want me to get that wasp?’ I ask the nurse.
‘Oh no! Don’t worry. He doesn’t bother me,’ she says.
We watch the wasp for a while.
‘I saw a patient bash a hornet’s nest with a broom,’ says the nurse. ‘It was absolutely appalling. We didn’t know it was there till he did it. Out in the garden, the old apple tree. It was big, like an enormous acorn made of paper. Like a lantern. Quite impressive really. It fell on the floor, and then all these hornets started pouring out of the hole at the bottom. Long, nasty looking things. And the nest kind of speeded-up, rolling round and round, all by itself. It was mad. Like something out of Carrie.’ She pauses to take a sip of tea.‘So don’t worry,’ she says, putting the mug down again. ‘I think I can handle him.’
More characterisation, plot and symbolism than some novels I've read.
Thanks very much, Alexia! (If only I could figure out how to sustain it all over the course of a novel... :/ )
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