Jake jumped from the number seven bus, the pneumatics hissing closed as it pulled away. He stepped towards the entrance. He wasn’t apprehensive, more curious than anything. This was his third year and instead of being stuck in a centrally-heated classroom watching the gloom pass over what passed for a seaside resort he was about to begin situational training. He’d done his time with the kids and geriatrics, now he was off to work with the unhinged. Three months with the mentally incapacitated. He felt a tingle, he wasn’t sure if it was excitement or nerves. He’d heard stories from his mates, believed half of what they’d told him, eager to experience it for himself.
‘You’re going to love it, best job I ever had,” John his classmate had told him. ” You won’t believe half of what you see, and no one’s gonna believe a word you say. Just treat them like people – no more, no less. The pub crawls are great – but don’t turn your back on old Sam! Oh yeah and the room, well you’ll find out for yourself!”
The hospital was an old country home belonging to the fornicator, philanderer and some-time author Lord Byron, his destitute heirs having sold the estate to the government to pay off death duties and gambling debts. The government in its wisdom turning the house over to the National Health who’d been using it as an asylum ever since. The debauchery it had witnessed oozed from between the bricks and mortar, mute volumes screamed of secrets long past.
He passed through stone pillars supporting rusting iron gates, surmounted by eagles – petrified sentinels, circling above those daring to enter. Crunching through gravel under a draping avenue of horse chestnut trees he headed towards the art-deco portico. Expansive lawns spread either side of him, the genius of Capability Jones back in the eighteen something’s. Derelict greenhouses stood at the end of what was presumably the kitchen gardens, overgrown with huge nets of blackberries and the last vestiges of what appeared to be grape vines. Byron had clearly had his head on straight – why bother with winter vegetables when you could be fermenting your own wine?
Walking through the park he spotted several individuals who were clearly patients. Some of the deranged stood statue still, others walking in endless circles. Pyjammered pugilists remonstrated with unseen adversaries whilst others laughed, sang or shouted. Conversations between unseen friends, arguments proliferated amongst invisible antagonists. The stark raving-mad were loud and large, walking freely around the lawns. He smiled pulling his scarf around his neck; the eagle had bloody landed, this really was the loony bin.
Poor mad bastards, he thought, God forbid it should ever come to this.
Stepping into the building he was confronted with sweeping marble floors and wide open staircases. Endless Esher-esque stairs that climbed the center of the hall, opening up into galleries leading to more staircases. Jake stared skywards feeling dizzy at the maze of stone and iron winding into infinity above his head. The ceilings gargantuan, covered in extensive moldings, the walls hung with past masters, relics of a Byronic estate.
Ancient oiled renaissance patriarchs glared down at him, the marble busts of owners past turning to stare blindly at the intruder. The whole building suspended in a vacuum, a place more befitting regency opulence than its current dower occupants.
No longer the Vanity Fair of bustled ladies, well healed gentlemen and uniformed flunkies, Caldwell Hall was now the abode of the mentally infirmed. The great and good making way for the addled and distracted – position and wealth for annonymity and bewilderment.
A reception desk bizarrely stood where it shouldn’t, guarded by a bored brown haired nurse flicking through magazines. In front of her several mismatched chairs and tables grouped together in clusters, presumably for the inmates and their guests. The faint smell of bleach and urine, the ever-present welcoming funk of socialised medicine. It didn’t matter which building you entered the smell was always the same. The institutionalized mug of antiseptic and human effluence, the stark, pervading contrast of medical sterility and human infirmity. He loved it.
Jake had met with Brian a senior nurse – the man who was going to guide him through his Bedlamesque experience. Jake noticed despite his inexperience that nurses who worked on mental wards were a different breed. More confident in their abilities, more able to perform their tasks, each with a wicked sense of humor and rapier wit. Perfected and holy-stoned after dealing with daily ridiculum.
“What you have to understand is that it’s big game, a battle of wits,” said Brian. “Half of them aren’t as stupid as they look and the other half, don’t look a stupid as they are. It’s us against them, the age old conundrum of whose guarding the guards? Don’t slip into the mentality of you’re better than they are; we’re just different, possibly slightly less mad – but equally unbalanced. After a couple of days you’lll think that you’ve seen it all. I’ve been here fifteen years and everyday is a surprise.” He grinned a buckled smile and slapped him on the back. This was it then. Let the games begin!
It wasn’t long before Jake encountered his first recountable tale, a couple of long-term psychos, institutionalized for years. The psychotrophic drugs that allowed others to reintegrate into the community had been ineffective – these two were here for life.
They’d decided to make the most of their incarceration, living up to their societal status. Not quite as mad as they were thought to be, but looking more crazed than they should they stalked the carpeted corridors in search of visitors – fresh meat for their quotidian scam.
The idea was to ambush traumatized family members, regaling them with tales of abuse. Shouting, screaming and pleading, they would demand money with menaces, relating tall stories of starvation diets and much needed cash for the vending machines in order to survive.
The place was terrible, the abuse, the ignominy!
Only too happy to oblige and affect a quick escape, victims would dig deep into pockets pressing sweated silver and crumpled notes into the blackmailer’s hands. As the two menaces gloated over their ill gotten gains whilst shoveling chocolate bars and emptying fizzy drinks into their toothless mouths’ the victims would make their escape. Regretting the moment they’d decided to visit Uncle Bob on the fourth floor. The medicated highwaymen grinned lopsidedly at each other, knowing that yet another unwilling participant in their pyramid scheme had coughed up the necessary cash. This had been going on for months. Families unwilling to report the assaults simply left the building, leaving the muggers to continue their reign of vending machine terror.
“Oh they know alright. They might give you that innocent, incontinent, sugar wouldn’t melt in my mouth look, but they know. Secrets not to show any weakness lovey, stand up to ‘em. They’re just like big kids. A little guidance and a thick ear.” Beryl was the matron, it was her hospital. A big robust woman whose white uniform stretched like sail cloth across her massive bosom, straining at every stitch as she ordered, demanded, coaxed and cajoled her way around the Hall. Jake could only imagine being on the end of one of her clips, rubbing his ear in psychosomatic expectation.
Behind the drugs and idiot smiles the inmates knew; the patients could smell fear and were prepared to push the envelope. Jake had been warned he would encounter surreal situations – meticulously planned, organized and executed by inmates with too much time on their hands. He may have been there for his own reasons however he was also an unwilling instrument of pleasure and amusement.
Brian was right. After a month he was starting to think he’d seen it all; the naked inmates wandering the grounds, Mr. Jones who persisted in wearing his underpants on the outside of his trousers, the amorous couples copulating in toilets and brush cupboards. Institutionalized hanky-panky couldn’t be stopped, even the neurotic have their urges and so the women were force fed anti-pregnancy medication. This added an air of guilt by association whenever Jake encountered a romantic rendezvous or interrupted a courting couple.
He’d fallen down the rabbit hole, and woken up in a topsy-turvy world, that although upside down was perfectly the right way up. The unusual was the norm, madness and insanity embraced, the outside world paying no heed.
Despite the freely displayed love the inmates also embraced the darker side of their disease. Smiles and cuddles would disappear transforming the meek and mild into their most aggressive selves.
Brian had warned him,” Don’t stand in front of old Jenkins, you won’t see it coming!”
Mr. Jenkins a short, stocky, softly spoken man walked around the house in faded woman’s slippers and a red paisley housecoat smiling at everything and troubling nobody. Appearances belied reality. Before the madness had taken his mind he’d been a professional boxer; a pugilist of repute winning trophies and a chance at the All-England Lightweight Title back in ‘52.
Although delicate in both speech and demeanor, Jenkins would without any warning smash his fist into any unfortunate who stood directly in front of him. Attacking the unlucky individual with professional gut crunching, piston like fists. Behind a punch-drunk visage, memories of halcyon moments would flash before his eyes, his victims folding like sacks of potatoes, writhing and screaming on the floor. Jenkins would raise his hands above his head in victory, walk circles around an imaginary ring and carry on as though nothing had happened.
Sometimes violence was the only recourse and on occasion implemented by the staff themselves. One inmate in particular, a huge Irishman who’d been at the Hall longer than anybody could remember struck fear into the nurses. Big Seamus personified violence, a giant, hulking, mountain of a man with black-pits for eyes. Because of his aggression he was permanently resigned to the padded cell. The comfy room as Brian called it!
In order to clean the detritus smeared throughout his cell it was necessary to initiate a military style operation. Jake stood back and watched as four of the biggest nurses prepared themselves to do battle, huddling together like nervous Tommys waiting for the whistle to send them over the top.
The door was flung open. As one they rushed into the cell, a stained mattress in front of them. The idea was to pin the Mad-Mick against the wall allowing housekeeping to complete their Herculean task. Having cornered him they used their combined weight to crush the giant into a corner.
Jake watched as huge steam hammer arms wind milled tattooed girth from either side of the mattress. Woe betides any nurse that he got to grips with as black eyes, broken noses and bruised ribs were not uncommon.
Housekeeping completed, the nurses retreated like legionnaires in tortoise formation, slamming the heavy door behind them, leaving the stunned befuddled patient wondering what the hell had just happened.
During Jake’s time at the Caldwell he’d managed to explore most of the great house, visiting the ball rooms, the cellars and even the attic reputed to be haunted by old Byron himself. It was puzzling that despite such an enormous house Byron would restrict himself to the cob webbed, dusty confines of its most uninhabitable portion. The haunting didn’t frighten him in the least however one place in particular disturbed him immensely.
His explorations had led him to the treatment room on the third floor; an archaic, white tiled, Victorian cell where bad medicine had been performed by bearded men in tall hats. At the turn of the century with the introduction of the pseudo scientific method, the medical community floundering in its own ignorance had tried countless methods to relieve the unfortunate of their mental miasma. With forced lobotomy, chemical castration and the modern medical phenomenon of Electro-Shock-Therapy, patients like pilot whales were driven onto the beaches of mental anguish.
As he stood outside the room, a lady in her late seventies wearing only a pair of shoes, a pearl necklace and white gloves passed him in the corridor. Mrs. Harrison, nice old lady, who no longer appreciated the societal norm of wearing clothes.
She smiled at him as she flounced past – he smiled back.
A cracked window pane painted the room in fading light, shadowing the gurney standing against the far wall. Unoccupied now, the leather restraining straps hung loosely at its sides – electrical cables running beneath it to a steel box attached to the wall. There had been earlier time when the gurney had held unwilling patients captive as Doctors administered recommended dosages of voltage and amps. Pulling and stretching at their bindings, unwilling victims would attempt to release themselves from bondage. The administration of muscle relaxants rendering wild billowing oceans of patient fear into serene mill ponds of peace.
The cables attached, the dials would be turned, the buttons switched. A brief illumination and the box would hum and fizz, the lights throughout the great house dim and flicker. The current passing through the patient’s brain causing them to arch their spines, set their mouths in rictous grins and loosen their bowels. It was as if a capacitor had been discharged and drained. The live wire who only moments ago had been trying to tear the room to pieces now laid child-like in complete supplication.
Jake hated the room and walked quickly by. The hairs on the back of his neck erect, his innards liquefying as he hurried away. Too much had happened in there, that was obvious; the trauma the room had witnessed still permeated the air. He’d been warned!
“Nothing to worry about! You just march ‘em down there, sit ‘em quietly, buy ‘em a couple of pints and a bag of crisps. No trouble at all – good as gold. I mean what could possibly go wrong, easy as falling off a bridge?” The nurse turned his back on Jake, mischief glinting in his eye a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. What he wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.
He recalled his first visit to the King’s Head. He couldn’t remember who was more excited, him or the inmates. Every Thursday morning they would assemble in front of the big house before trooping down to the local hostelry.
Mr. Plumbton, with a pre ordained opening license from the fuzz, would open his doors to Caldwell Hall inmates and the pub would be theirs for a couple of hours. Jake walked down the line of thirsty imbeciles checking them off against his list.
“Alright everybody hold hands and let’s go.”
Resembling gas-blinded men on a Somme battlefield they followed each other shakily through the gates and down the road towards The king’s Head.
Like sheepdogs wary of an errant flock Jake and the other minders would harry and cajole the group together. Getting there wasn’t too bad as the purpose was universal; it was coming back that was the issue. The effect of alcohol mixed with mind controlling drugs wasn’t something to be recommended – probably lost in the fine print of disclaimer, and yet the tradition persisted. How much damage could it do anyway?
The return journey was a different matter. The beer running through their veins would change the group into floundering teddy bears, errant street pissers, amorous cuddlers and would be traffic policemen. They’d never lost anybody however it wasn’t for want of trying.
Once inside the pub, the patients would sit in rows on the long tables the landlord had positioned by the window. Jake went to the bar and with their pocket money in hand ordered pints of bitter, pickled eggs and bags of crisps. Somebody fed the Juke box and the group warbled to the thrashing drum beat pouring from loudspeakers.
Huge, brown, frothing, pints of liquid goodness passed through his hands to the patients. Placing two pints on the table he turned to fetch the rest. It wasn’t until he returned that he realized his mistake.
Old Sam, with beer froth plastered to his moustache and an empty beer glass pointed to the heavens, was polishing off his second pint. Head back, mouth open, he tipped the golden liquid down his throat. With a satisfied burp he returned the empty glass to earth with a crash. Jake wouldn’t make that mistake again.
”There was a young lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She laid on her back….”
Of all the inmates his favorite was an old sailor who’d whored his way through the ports of the empire and was in the final stages of tertiary syphilis. His mind was Swiss cheese, however Noah, as they called him – since they didn’t know of an older sailor- could still swear in fifty different languages, sing louder than any of them and tell the most disgusting jokes.
“Tell us a joke Noah,” had become a daily ritual.
Noah, whose real name was Amos, would glow, his eyes sparkle as he ushered forth with the most descriptive juicy enunciation possible, making each and every joke lewd enough to blush a trooper.
“Opened her snatch,
And peed all over the ceiling!”
It was easy to get attached. Daily contact and the requisite governmental care distributed frugally among multiple patients meant that relationships and bonds formed easily. All said and done they might all be mad as hatters but they were people too.
Convicted by society for being a little too weird and not quite mentally stable enough to function autonomously they were cast upon the human scrapheap that was Caldwell Hall. It was easy to apportion blame, point and castigate, however who was truly sane in this mad, mad world?
“You’re going to see a lot of things which to say the least, are a little out of the norm. Our guests here don’t act like regular people, and because of that we have to adjust our own attitudes so that we can give them the care they deserve. Don’t forget we are dealing with people not idiots.” The doctor’s words struck a chord with Jake who understood that despite the gross lack of funding, the familial neglect and the criminally insufficient means at their disposal, work had to go on.
Conversations with inanimate objects were nothing unusual and towards the end of his internship Jake started to engage the patients in their own delusion. Why fight it, it was their reality anyway?
There was Mr. Blake who had continuous conversations with walls and potted plants. Mrs. Stevenson who could always be found lying on the ground under her bed. The parade of personalities was endless.
“What’s going on Tom?”
“It’s my wife, she’s telling me what to do. She won’t bleeding leave me alone.”
Jake smiled, laughed and thought of his own long suffering father understanding perfectly what Tom was going through.
“What you doing Jean?”
“I’m fixing my car of course what are you blind as well as stupid?”
“What’s it this time, the brakes again?” Jean grimaced and shook her head disgusted at Jake’s lack of mechanical aptitude.
“No it’s the bloody alternator; I only replaced it last week!”
“Morning Mrs. Harrison,” as she tripped by in gloves and shoes wearing nothing else but her smile.
“Hey Bob, you really should go and get dressed. Matron’s only going to scream at you when she sees your underpants on the outside!”
The huge grounds ended abruptly at cliffs edge, terminating in a sheer drop to a pebble beach below. On a summers night you could watch elongating lawn shadows as the hall disappeared in encroaching dusk. The genus of flickering electric lights at windows, illuminating the Hall, edging out darkness. The inaudible sighs of exhaling hot summer days, giving up their heat to refreshing evening coolness. A beautiful view on a summer’s eve, but a temptation to the desperate.
Jessie, a quiet girl with a long history of incarcerated care hadn’t shown up for the Thursday beer trip. Younger than most, for some reason she’d never been relocated to another institution so that she could mix with people of a similar age. Slight and introverted she was never any bother. There was a story about a car accident that had taken her parents and brother leaving her bereft, crazed and a burden on society.
They’d looked around, asked the other nurses, tried to find her but nobody knew where she was. It wasn’t until the evening of the next day that the local constabulary reported they’d found the body of a woman on the beach below the cliff.
A Sergeant with his mind on the six o’clock kick-off and not on anonymous jumpers from the loony-bin asked if someone from the staff would be kind enough to identify her.
It was Jessie. Too much pressure, too much life, too much pain had caused her to jump. Ironic really, a madhouse with a suicide platform at the bottom of the garden! What had they been thinking? Much like their patients, rational thought had obviously not been the order of the day for the benevolent trustees.
The final day arrived; Jake was sad to be leaving. His time at the asylum had been rewarding and educational and he’d set his mind on his major. Soon as he got back to college he was going to opt for every psych class he could find in order to specialize in mental health. His mates had been right, the experience had been eye-opening and life altering.
He made his way to the great room where long trestle tables and benches had been set for breakfast. Each morning the same ritual, routine was the key. The places were set and steaming tureens of bacon and eggs sat in stainless steel glory.The procedure was as repetitive as the quality of cooking. Inmates served nurses, nurses served the patients.
No madness just happy smiles, the smash of gums on crispy bacon. He would miss it, they would miss him.