A corridor led to a large lounge bordered by stiff-backed chairs where old ladies sat in splendid isolation while, beyond their reach, a television chatted to itself. The afternoon sun spilling through the high windows could not dispel the gloom. Hunched figures paced the carpet while others, seated, snored or muttered witchy incantations. Some rocked and others contorted their lips and jaws like gurners at Crab Fair, except that these women didn’t twist their faces for a prestigious prize, but as a side-effect of antipsychotic medication.
In contrast to the rehabilitation wards, the staff wore the traditional nurse uniform, in deepening shades of blue spanning the hierarchy from nursing assistant to sister. Although the residents had no official uniform, they all wore shapeless floral dresses in non-iron nylon with thin cardigans, and slippers.
In a blue so dark it was a hair’s breadth from black, Sister Henderson occupied a desk in an office with an observation window into the lounge. As Janice took a seat by the open door, one of the pale-blue minions set down a tea tray with matching teapot, milk jug, and china cups and saucers, a lidded bowl of sugar cubes with filigree tongs. In addition to tea, Sister Henderson dispensed a slew of demographics: who was the oldest; who had been resident the longest; who had been subjected to the most courses of ECT. Her monologue was punctuated by a procession of old ladies to the door, whom Sister Henderson studiously ignored. Janice was becoming accustomed to the ritual when the nurse cut short her soliloquy on insulin coma therapy. “Matty Osborne! Away and meet the new social worker.”
Who should shuffle forward but the delightful eccentric who’d asked if she’d fled the circus? Janice extended her hand. Instead of taking it, the patient curtsied.
“Tell our visitor about your mother,” said Sister Henderson.
“My mother married a prince,” chimed the old woman.
“What else can you tell our visitor, Matty?”
“Matilda told such dreadful lies it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes …”
Janice recognised Hilaire Belloc’s humorous poem about the girl who cried wolf. When her father read it to her and her sister – pausing after Fire, fire! so they could shout Little liar! – the child’s death provoked fits of giggles. Now, prattled by the victim’s namesake, it seemed obscene. As Matty fixed her gaze on a smudged whiteboard and Sister Henderson looked on devotedly, Janice couldn’t decide which woman was battier. The poster in the social work office, of which she’d initially disapproved, struck her now as painfully pertinent: the passage from Alice in Wonderland where Alice tells the Cheshire cat, I don’t want to go among mad people. In her youth, Matty might have felt the same.
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