1. The Ward
EVERYTHING IS WHITE. ‘Is it snow?’
Cathy touches the gown she is wearing, rough cotton and cold. She shivers under the thin white sheets and bundles her knees to her chest.
The noises outside are faint, the squeak of passing feet on rubberised flooring.
A voice echoes, ‘Dinner, time for dinner.’ The words come in a whisper, lapping at her consciousness.
Dad is at the door. ‘Five minutes - you must get up and come to the dining room. Don’t worry about getting dressed,’ he continues, handing over a dressing gown.
It’s white, like snow, Cathy thinks.
I’m coming, Dad, she says to herself.
Another head joins Dad’s.
‘Come on, get up now,’ a quiet, kind lady’s voice adds. ‘You need to eat. It’ll make you feel better.’ She helps her out of bed and onto her feet. ‘Here, put your slippers on.’
They walk down the long corridor.
It’s the wrong kitchen. There are two round plastic Formica tables, plastic chairs, and a huge glass window and door.
Mum, what’s happened to the kitchen? Cathy asks, but again, no sound comes out.
Mum is saying something to her, but it isn’t Mum when she looks to make out her words. Her hair’s done funny. It’s some strange lady with brown hair.
Cathy doesn’t feel well. She is exhausted, and her head throbs. She cries.
‘What’s the matter, dear?’ the woman asks.
She doesn’t know what the matter is. Why she can’t speak, or where is Mum?
‘Try to eat,’ the lady says gently.
But the words induce an intense irritation in Cathy. She gives her plate a hard shove, and with a strange, guttural noise, it skids across the table and lands with a tiny echo.
‘Right, that’s it!’ the tall man says, grabbing her by the arm. He frog-marches her back to the room. ‘Back to bed!’
Back in bed, Cathy is shivering, and her teeth are juddering.
A voice jumps into her head. It’s cold, like Siberia.
Siberia! Where’s that?
An image of the sewing teacher at school pops into her head. The woman is small, wears a heavy A-line skirt, thick high shoes, and a polo-neck jumper. She has dark circles under her sunken eyes. She stands next to Cathy on the side of one of the school’s sewing machines.
‘I have already told you this,’ she says, her voice rising and curdling impatiently. ‘Let me sit down and show you.’ With an exasperated sigh, she sits, turns the machine’s wheel to raise the needle, and pulls out the stuck material from the underbelly. ‘There,’ she hands it back to Cathy. ‘Can you please LISTEN next time?’
Listen, listen, listen, Cathy whispers to herself like a lullaby until darkness falls.
Morning comes in slits. Cathy’s eyes open to unfamiliar sounds and light.
She wonders why the light is so strange with metal lines in it. Then she realises it isn’t lines but bars.
Why do the windows have bars on them?
As she looks closer, they are the ones on the electric fire Dad used to put on while getting ready for school. Cathy remembers kneeling in front of the intense heat, struggling into her school uniform. Then Dad comes in. ‘Get that down, you love,’ as he gives her a steaming hot bowl of porridge.
Now she feels detached, so distant, a shape in a bed.
They all line up for meds at breakfast, an endless shuffling row of faceless bodies, blank faces like mottled brown hen eggs. See you for breakfast.
‘Breakfast,’ a male voice call. ‘Wakey. Wakey, time to get up, breakfast!’
Cathy hears the sounds and pieces the scene together.
A face appears at the door. It’s a man. This one is plump like a pumpkin, Cathy thinks. He has short, grey hair, a round pumpkin face and a curvaceous belly. He wears trainers, jeans, and a blue polo shirt.
A tiny black nurse joins him. ‘My name is Harmony,’ she introduces herself.
Her feet must be size three.
‘Right, my lovey, you need to get up now. It’s time for you to get dressed.’
Cathy’s in the bathroom.
‘Come on Cathy; you must wash—here, brush your hair,’ handing her the brush.
Cathy lets it fall to the floor.
‘Come on. Breakfast is ready.’
A small group of kids sits at the other table. Cathy joins them but doesn’t eat.
‘If you don’t eat, you don’t leave the table,’ they tell her.
‘I’m not hungry,’ she says, turning her back on her food.
It’s later when Cathy gets up, and only she and a skinny girl are left. The girl is arguing about her breakfast.
This room full of food makes Cathy sick. She wants to go to bed.
Halfway down the garden, someone taps Cathy on the shoulder. Something is said, which she can’t quite make out as the wind is howling around her ears. She catches snatches of sound whipped up by the wind.
She remembers tapping the xylophone, the sound of each note fading like smoke.
The man points at something and holds it out.
‘Drink it?’ Cathy questions.
He nods and gives her a tiny plastic cup with a clear gloppy liquid.
She drinks it, licking the sticky sweetness from her lips.
On the way back, she turns and catches sight of Raven from the corner of her eye. A shiver runs down her spine. She stumbles, gibbering to herself. One hand traces the corridor’s wall lapping the passage, pushing into her room and the bed.
Two nurses take Cathy into the bathroom. They ask her to strip and climb into a bathtub.
Stepping in, she pretends the two women are not sitting on either side of her.
One knit, the other leaves and returns with two cups of tea.
Taking her clothes off is exhausting.
The cool air of the bathroom makes the room steamy against heated water.
Cathy hasn’t stripped in front of anyone since she was a child. She hates her nakedness and brown skin.
The bathroom is industrial, with a huge white porcelain tub. Above the tub, in front of the taps, is a skylight, thick plastic mottled with moss. Outside, the sky is dark.
As Cathy lies there, other people are in and out to use the toilets. There is flushing and some chatter.
Lying prone, she looks up at the ceiling through the steam, feeling buried under the earth. She needs to get out now.
The nurses are saying something, staring at her like a frog under a microscope. One pulls the plug out and tells her to get dressed while she waits outside.
Cathy tries, but nothing happens. She lies so still. Her breath will stop at any second. She is so cold.
A nurse presses a button on the wall. It screams around the room. Soon running feet skid in, faces pushing into the room - faces leaving again.
A wheelchair is pushed to the side of the bath. Arms join forces to lift her out. She is covered with a towel, wheeled back to her room and assisted into her nightgown.
Cathy looks out across the fields from the second floor. The sun is warming the ground, and the fields are dancing yellow and green. The trees line the river’s edge. She remembers how the river courses and dances through the town, standing barefoot in its gurgling waters, her feet content on polished stones. Then hears children’s cries further along and watches them swim back and forth on a rope swing before plundering into the deep waters amongst claps and whoops.
The nurses take Cathy to a small room with plain white walls.
She climbs onto the twisting plank with straps positioned and shuffles backwards along it.
Oars? she wonders.
She lies on a white paper, wearing paper knickers, a flimsy white hospital gown, and socks. She turns sideways, facing the wall.
There is a faint row of perspiration stinging her smooth upper lip.
A face is close to hers now.
She is being turned onto her side, and a needle is drawn up in the window’s reflection.
The pain runs up Cathy’s arm, making it throb. It courses through her blood like an anti-freeze.
‘Count backwards,’ they tell her. ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven, six...’
They are trying to de-contaminate me - to wipe out the anomalies in my deviant DNA.
Cathy feels barren, her bones brittle, as she lies bare like at an excavation site. They are digging deep, excavating her like a rogue tooth.
Small electric pads are applied to her temples, and the current is switched on.
The long pianist’s fingers are exposed, the woody knuckles tight. A calling bird’s sound rings like a tolling bell. The flatlands tumble under the opaque waters, and her soft teeth grind and snag. The long legs of her lands lift into kneecaps and muddy corpses, where she leaves soft footfall and no footfall. Leaves flutter behind her like confetti, and her eyes refract blue glints like smashed glass.
Afterwards, she is helped into a wheelchair and wheeled back to her bed.
She sleeps. She wakes up - her head a swarm of bees.
They give her pills. She sleeps again.
Night becomes indistinguishable from the day.
Strange figures enter her room at intervals, shining a torch at her.
‘Catherine, are you okay?’ they whisper. She hears such distant questions.
Catherine? It must be Mum. She’s the only one who calls me by my full name.
Am I okay? Cathy wonders.
The light moves closer. She’s okay.
Is it time for her meds yet?
The other checks the chart and nods. ‘I’ll draw it up.’
She bounces against memories deep within. Feelings pass through her like colours as she grabs at flashes of memory, but what she gets is as illegible as tiny braille bumps.
She is like an angel, a wandering nomad dressed in a white hospital gown. But this angel is barefoot in a corridor of grey.
The snow outside falls through a pigeon-grey London.
This snow isn’t right, she thinks.
There is a stirring within her, the stirring of memory, another snow.
Cathy’s eyes open suddenly, like those of a baby doll, the tiny tears doll she used to have. In the window’s reflection, a craggy older woman stares back, her skin overtaken by wrinkles. Her eyelashes are long and dark, like a spider’s legs.
She turns away and grabs the door handle, but the greyness has run. This hand does not belong. The skin is slack and thin.
There is a faint blush, a cold blue chill. Cathy senses a deep malevolence rolling through the outer wall into the room. It pushes her back. Trembling, Cathy slams the door shut.
A thick sound is thumping at her door. There is shouting again, a muffled thud, and then the screaming peel of a bell.
She remembers the first term of her secondary school.
The school bell is ringing. It’s a screaming peel. The sound courses through the school’s arteries, pumping down the corridors, the classrooms, and into the dining hall and toilets.
People are flooding in, pouring out of doors, pushing Cathy’s back and backing up like the Sardine Run along the Durban Beachfront.
There is a door marked, ‘Toilets Female’. Cathy propels herself to it, walking away across the tide of shoving bodies to escape the mass of noise and movement.
The first thing that hits her is the smell of blocked drains and cigarette smoke.
Inside, the toilets are small and dirty, with three battered cubicles covered in graffiti - swear words, explicit pictures and messages. ‘Chaz is a slag’ ‘Sharron loves Joe.’ ‘Nik is a homo.’
The toilet roll dispenser hangs off the wall, its paper running to the floor like a lolling tongue.
Three girls huddle in the corner by the sinks, lighting cigarettes. ‘What you lookin’ at, you loser?’ one snipe.
‘Nothing,’ Cathy mumbles, looking away, and shuts the toilet door.
Pulling her knickers down, she sees the bright blood spots on her clean white underwear. She sighs and leans to find her toiletries bag.
Cathy is uneasy about her period. It’s painful, and her stomach feels raw and crampy.
Between her legs, sticky and uncomfortable, she blots at the blood. This bleeding, this impending womanhood, feels like a demarcation to her - an entry into a strange and uncomfortable world. To Cathy, it’s the end of one life and the beginning of another.
She fears what the changes will bring, doesn’t feel ready and doesn’t want the change. Her parent’s separation was a devastating change for her.
There is a loud kick against the door. It swings open and above comes loud giggling as two faces peer over the top of the cubicle.
‘Oh dear, got your monthlies, have you?’
The biggest girl, who kicked the door open, stands at the cubicle door.
Startled, Cathy kicks the door shut and fixes herself up. She rushes out of the cubicle, pushing past the girls.
Laughter rings behind her.
Back in her room, Cathy sits with a ringing and an odd thickness in her head. A streak of dribble runs from the side of her mouth. She sways her legs over the side of the bed and struggles to her feet. No part of her body works together. She is lilting across the room like a fairground boy working the waltzer ride. She clings to the handle at the door and licks her dry lips. The meds make her mouth feel parched.
She opens the door a crack. The scene that confronts her is unexpected. People surround a tall, sturdy girl. She is shouting, hollering, and trying to shrug them off her arms and back. The girl is facing away from Cathy’s room. Her legs are akimbo, and her hair is long, brownish-blond, and wavy. It hangs down her back. In front of her, a team of hospital staff has formed. The strongest, most muscular men stand firm in front. The rest nestle behind each other in a scrum formation.
There is a moment’s stand-off between the girl, Tank, and the scrum of staff.
Tank is now a bull, Cathy thinks. Her hind hoof lifts to scrape at the earth, ready to spring into action, head down. She is coiled energy.
Tank pauses, then drops her head and gives a submissive shrug to the nurses. She moves forward half a step before rising in one swift movement and then anchors her weight behind a clean uppercut to the right jaw, Aaron’s jaw.
In that one swift movement, Tank is majestic and becomes iconic in Cathy’s mind. She thinks of the Statue of Liberty.
The alarm peals across the unit whilst Tank runs amok. The nurses keep well back and wait for re-enforcement from the central hospital. Soon the corridor is awash with hospital staff.
Cathy shrinks back.
The commotion swings back next to her room, and she listens as they corner Tank, still screaming and swearing. She tries to strike out to no effect as a nurse sticks a needle in her backside through her trousers. Within seconds, Tank is on the floor.
She is dragged past Cathy’s door into the room opposite - her legs following behind like a dead man’s. They place her inside, locking the door behind.
The tallest man is brought a chair and a newspaper, unfurls his long legs, settling outside the door.
Tank is now a caged animal, Cathy thinks.
Against the room’s softness, Tank kicks and yells. ‘Wait till I get out of here, you fuckers.’ Bang! Bang! She pounds the door with her fists.
After a while, the sound changes and becomes much more robust. Tank has changed positions. She is now lying on her back with her knees curled up, kicking the wall double-footed.
Tank’s face is now pushed flat against the reinforced glass, with her teeth against it. The slim glass metal grills appear as if Tank is wearing a brace. Her nose is squished sideways, and her eyes are large and wild.
The nursing staff have had enough. ‘All right, that’s it. The show’s over! Or I will get the doctor to help you settle down.’
Tank disappears from the window for a second before a loud yell comes from the room. Then comes an awful rattling noise. ‘Let me out, you fuckers,’ still kicking the walls.
The room is unfurnished, with a single recessed light in the ceiling and no window. Nurses call this place ‘time out.’ Tank re-names it “the hole.”
Noises ping around the corridor like ping-pong balls. There is a sombre mood on the ward, an eerie tension.
‘Good grief,’ a nurse says as she signs on for the “graveyard shift.”
The thudding continues. By 3 am, the night staff can’t take the disturbance anymore. They place a cardboard kidney dish with a small plastic medicine cup on the stool outside “the hole.”
‘Look,’ a nurse shouts through the door. ‘We’ll open to give you something to help you sleep, but you must be calm, okay?’
The two nurses exchange looks, one nod and another step forward. The door rattles as the metal keys buff against it. Then a sharp click as the handle turns, and the door unlocks.
Inside “the hole,” Tank is finally fast asleep on her side.
2. Walking Backwards
THE HOUSE’S SECOND FLOOR is dark, calm, and almost supernaturally quiet, but the loud mahogany grandfather clock pedantically marks out time with a metronome’s precision.
It’s polished mahogany, deep heavy carpets, shiny silver, and heavy smoky tinted glass doors.
Cathy creeps between rooms through the lurking shadows and suffocating silence. The house frightens her. “They” scare her, creeping into her dreams, shutting her behind doors, hunting her, as she runs room to room, convinced “they” would find her.
Even in sleep, her heart palpitates as her dream feet drag through the velvety carpet that sucks her feet, spinning them into treacle.
She hears the piercing tone of a young girl’s voice. Mummy.