AN URGENCY ORDER
Few people realise that such incidents are by no means uncommon. The laws which provoke them are dangerous for several reasons. First, there what is known as an urgency order for putting people away, which may be signed by anyone over 21 years of age—it may be the butcher or the baker—who deposes to have seen the patient within two days. This order may be signed before the accompanying medical certificate, which means that a person may be on the way to a lunatic asylum before he has actually been certified !
LANCASHIRE EVENING POST, September 1933
The chime of cutlery on crockery and spoons scraping metal burrowed into Grace’s dream with the smell of boiled greens. She tried to spiral backwards into the sanctuary of sleep but distant conversation reached her, too far away to make out the words but too close to ignore. She wanted to snuggle back into the darkness and warmth but wakefulness forced itself upon her. She heard herself groan out loud.
“Ah, you’re awake, I’ll fetch Sister,” said a voice.
Grace’s lashes tore against a crusty resistance as she lifted her head in the direction of the sound. Her limbs were stiff, her head throbbed and her mouth felt sore and bitten. Her eyes watered in protest at the light from a bare bulb above her. She tried to lift her arm to cover her face but it resisted the instruction to move. She wriggled and but was held fast against the bed. It didn’t make any sense.
“Wakey, wakey. Rise and shine,” a cheerful voice sliced through the remaining drowsiness and Grace stared up at a cherubic face, topped with an elaborate frilly white hat which hovered over her.
“Hallo, I’m Sister Burton. Glad to see you’ve decided to join us today.” Then, looking away, “Nurse, see to the patient’s restraints please?”
Grace was aware of someone fumbling at one edge of the bed and raised her head to see a young girl in the pale blue dress of a nurse, studying something just under the sheet.
Grace’s arm was suddenly free and, as she held it up, she was surprised by the reddened bracelet of raised flesh which circled her wrist.
“Am I sick?” she asked.
“You are in hospital, my dear,” said the sister, patting her through the bedclothes, “Now please relax. You are quite safe.”
When the other arm was released Grace tried to sit up and realised, with shock, her bed was damp. She pushed the covers back a little and her worst fears were confirmed.
“Oh dear, I am sorry, I don’t know why…” She fell back and hid her face in her hands.
“Not to worry, it sometimes happens. It’s the injection the doctor gave you. But please don’t make a habit of it. Nurse, get her to the backs and cleaned up please. Then bring her to the ward”. The sister sailed from the room with her hands clasped under her large bosom as if in prayer.
Grace wondered if her head was wrapped in a bandage, because her scalp was drawn tight. The nurse helped her to stand, she was unsteady on her feet like the day they had got her out of bed after she’d delivered the twins. She was hunched over, unsure if she could straighten up. It was as if her lungs would have too much room and would flap inside her chest like chickens in a cage at the market.
“I think I am going to faint!” She clutched the young woman’s arm.
“You’ll be fine, it’s just the sedatives. It will wear off soon enough,” the nurse reassured her, placing a sheet around her shoulders.
Then a cascade of images forced their way into Grace’s head: people came to the house and abducted her, a court room, a lady took the children for a drive, Mrs Sugden next door always prying, an ambulance. She smelt burning and cooked cabbage, heard the crackle of a bonfire, feet clattering on a wooden floor and George Watson barking at her. Had other people shouted at her, too? It was all a jumble. Adrenalin made her stomach lurch as reality pierced her.
“Where am I? Is this a hospital?” she gasped. “Where are the boys? Where have they taken them?”
“You are in Hellingly Hospital, dear. I think your children are at St Wilfrid’s. Doctor will explain it all when you see him. I am not allowed to say anything really. Come along, I’ll cop it if I don’t get you along to the ward in good time.”
The “backs” was a long tiled room. Just inside the door to the right were four cubicles in a row, each containing a toilet, and beyond that four deep cast iron baths stood in the middle of the room. On the walls hung jugs, hoses and brushes of various proportions.
“Use the lavatory first” commanded the nurse.
On entering the cubicle Grace found no door so made as if to move to the next. The nurse gave a short laugh, “No doors here my love, sorry”.
The ice cold porcelain bit Grace’s thighs. She closed her eyes to pretend she wasn’t there, like a child in hiding.
When she opened them the nurse stood, arms folded, watching.
“Strip off once you’re done. Put your dirty stuff in there”. The young woman indicated a large canvas bag hanging from a metal frame behind her.
Grace realised with a start she was wearing only underwear under a hospital gown. Who had undressed her? Where were her clothes? The chill of the tiled room caused her skin to contract into goose bumps and her nipples stood proud. Once naked, she wrapped her arms around herself.
The nurse shrugged. “I’ve seen it all before. No need to be shy. Come on, there’s a dear, hop in while it’s still warm”.
To her mild surprise, the tepid bathwater was soothing. Grace hugged her knees to her chest in an attempt at modesty. The uniformed woman grabbed a large tin jug, filled it from the bath and poured the contents over Grace’s head without warning and then began to rub at her hair with a hard lump of soap.
“Head back!” Again a cascade of water poured over Grace’s head.
“Ow. Hold on, there’s soap in my eyes”
The nurse continued to rub at Grace’s head.
“Stop!” cried Grace, “My eyes are stinging, pass me a towel.”
“Don’t make such a fuss, dear. Just hold still. If we don’t get a move on we’ll have Sister here wondering what’s keeping us and we don’t want that. She can be a right old tartar.”
Another torrent of water came.
“All done, here take the soap and give yourself a good scrub. Under your arms, between your legs, round the back too”.
“Grace is washing her privates, Grace is washing her back door”.
“Please shut up, Mabel,” Grace whined. The whimper of an infant reached her. Grace looked around for the source of the cry. Then came soft weeping from close by, the sound of distant wailing, small children made frightened cries. The chorus built from sobs to a crescendo of shrieks slashing the air around her.
Grace’s own tears joined the rapidly cooling bath water. She was grateful for the lack of reaction from the young nurse, who leaned against the sill of a high window drawing pictures in the condensation on the glass.
Still sniffing, Grace stepped from the bath and accepted the stiff towel she was offered. She let the nurse rub her hair dry and then comb it. She dressed in unfamiliar clothes: the knickers were grey with age and baggy, the sludge green skirt, thick and coarse, her breasts were compressed under a vest, which may once have been white but was now yellow, and a blue cardigan buttoned to the neck. She wore socks and slippers which did little to combat the coldness of the stone floors. The slippers were slack, which meant Grace was forced to shuffle to keep them on as she was led into a tiled corridor with a high, arched ceiling.
The nurse led her past a series of identical sets of wooden doors which stood in pairs every twenty yards or so, the top halves chequered with small glass windows and sporting heavy brass handles mounted on shiny plates either side. “I was always getting lost when I first started because it all looks the same,” confided the young woman. “But the secret’s the floor. See the edging tiles? They were brown back there in reception. Same as in doctors, examination rooms and admin. Now see, they’ve gone green because we’re in the female side. General areas are grey, male side is blue, red is halls and recreation areas. You’re going to be on Female D which is Sister Burton’s. Here we are.”
They turned through the next double-doored entrance into a passageway lined with closed doors. Grace was relieved to feel it was a little warmer in the ward than the corridor as she sank onto the bench the nurse had indicated.
To her right, the corridor opened into a large room with serried ranks of hospital beds along both sides and an assortment of tables and chairs at the far end. A dumpy woman energetically swept under beds and a few figures were hunched over the tables, but otherwise there was little sign of occupation. The smell of Jeyes fluid overpowered everything.
Grace sat back and tried to make sense of the last few hours. Or was it days? How long had she been in this place? She ran her fingers through her hair as if that might straighten her tangled thoughts. Her stomach knotted painfully. She wished she was asleep and dreaming but knew in her heart this nightmare was real.
“Grace,” came the whisper. Blue stood just inside the doors from the main corridor.
“Blue. Thank goodness, I thought I’d lost you!” Grace whispered back. “I’ve had the most horrible time.”
From behind her came a screech, “First sign of madness!”
Her tummy rolled with adrenalin and Grace swung around to see the broom wielding woman, rosy from her exertions. Squat and wide, she had a solid, square head which seemed set directly into her shoulders without the delicacy of a neck but was cushioned by two fat rolls of flesh under her chin. Her broad smile revealed a large gap in her teeth.
“Sorry, sweetie bits, did I scare you?”
Grace shook her head.
“I was only pulling your leg, ducky, didn’t mean to make you jump.”
“You didn’t.” Grace smoothed her skirt and gave the woman a tight smile.
“I’m Bessie, but they call me ‘Puff’ because it rhymes with my name see, Bessie Hough, puff. And I do. Puff. Always have. My brother used to say I was a duffer as well as a puffer so just as well I was born a Hougher ain’t it.” Bessie cackled.
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Hough,” murmured Grace.
“Mrs?” Laughing, she wiped the back of her hand across an eye. “I ain’t never been wed! Plain old Miss Huff’n’Puff for me, not that I’m sorry. I don’t think I’d have liked being married all that much. My old mum never seemed all that happy with it anyway. Seven of us kids and barely a pot to piss in.”
Bessie lowered her ample bottom onto the bench next to Grace, stood the broom between her knees and leaned heavily on it. They sat in silence. A distant door slammed, a man shouted, a trolley wheel squeaked, footsteps came close but moved past. Turning towards an echo of laughter from the corridor beyond the double doors, Grace saw Blue was walking towards them and shifted to make space for her on the bench.
“I’m Grace Carter, by the way,” said Grace. She turned and held out her right hand.
“Oh my, ain’t you got lovely manners?” squawked Bessie. “Proper ladylike.”
“I don’t think she’s the full shilling,” said Blue with a snigger.
“Grace is barmy too,” said Mabel.
“Please don’t -,” Grace stopped herself from remonstrating with her companions just in time.
“Don’t sound like you’re from round here neither?” Bessie pushed her fat lips together in a kiss.
“I’m not really, I moved here to be with my husband,” explained Grace. “My parents were actors so we travelled all the time, season by season”.
“Actors, on stage like, in plays?”
“Yes, well, actually they did all sorts. My father did a lot of vaudeville in America early on, he sang and acted too.”
“America! Lordy, have you been to America?”
“No, no, that was before I was born. My father and mother travelled around all over. They used to do a song and dance act, mainly music hall and acting. We went with them.”
“When I was fifteen, Dad formed his own revue and we were in Scotland for a couple of years.” Grace started to speak with a Scottish lilt, “Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow.”
“Hark at you, got the acting in your blood, ain’t you girl.” Bessie laughed.
“So how about you, Bessie Hough, where are you from?”
“Me? Oh bless you sweetie, I’ve been in here longer than I’ve been anywhere, you don’t need to know about me. My father was a sailor from Pompey…”
“My husband is in the navy.”
“Bless you, it must be a worry.” Bessie patted Grace’s leg before folding her arms across herself with a deep sigh. “Terrible worry.”
Blue rested her head on Grace’s upper arm.
Mabel snorted. “Grace is more worried about him coming back.”
“So how long have you worked here, Bessie?” Grace spoke loudly in an effort to drown Mabel’s chortling.
At that Bessie doubled over with a shriek. Grace’s instant thought was that she had been hurt in some way but then realised it was an expression of mirth.
“I’m sorry I…” Grace blinked hard.
“I don’t work here,” said Bessie giggling. “I’m a patient, my love. Just like you. Oh my word. Worked here indeed.” She sat back, her face puce, and fanned herself with a chubby hand.
“I am so sorry, I didn’t realise.” Grace chewed her lips. “I saw you sweeping round the beds and I just assumed. Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for, sweetie. Easy mistake. No, I am a patient. But I like to clean so I get to help out with things on the ward. Beds, cleaning, polishing sometimes. The others go off to the sewing room, the laundry or the farm but I get to stay behind. I help the nurses. Poor things are run off their feet most days, really short-staffed we are. I like it and so do they. Those old biddies wouldn’t get fed most days if I wasn’t around.” She waved her hand in the general direction of the old women huddled at the far end of the ward.
“Right Ivy, good to see you all tidied up.” The sister appeared in front of them smiling. Blue stood next to the sister, hands on her hips, bottom lip jutted out in a pout, her eyebrows set in a deep frown.
“Grace,” said Grace, getting to her feet. The sister tilted her head to one side. “I’m Grace,” explained Grace again, “Not Ivy.”
“Oh I see, of course. Mea culpa. My mistake.”
Grace straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin and extended her hand in greeting. “I am Mrs Albert Carter.”
“And I am Sister Burton.” The sister’s hand was warm around Grace’s fingers. “We met earlier, in the reception unit. I can see you’ve already met Bessie. Most of the others are out at work so it’s relatively quiet at the moment but, Bessie will introduce you to them when they are back, won’t you, Bessie?”
Bessie, braced by her broom, nodded.
“She can have Dorothy’s old bed,” continued the sister, returning her attention to Grace, “Now then, Grace—”
“Sister Burton, I’d prefer you to address me as Mrs Carter. Unless you would like me to address you by your Christian name, in which case perhaps we should take the time to get to know one another a little better”.
Sister Burton folded her hands across herself and gave her breasts a little nudge upwards. “I see.” A flush stained her cheeks. “Perhaps you misunderstand. We address people by their Christian names to help them feel more comfortable, more at home.”
“This is not my home, Sister Burton.”
“Indeed it is not. It is a hospital ward of which I am in sole command, in which mine is the final word.” She leaned closer to Grace before continuing, “However, if you insist…sic erit, Mrs Carter. Bessie, get her settled in please.” Sister Burton started to walk away, face flaming.
“Sister Burton, before you run off to do whatever it is that is so pressing, would you please do me the courtesy of explaining exactly how long you intend to keep me here against my will and, more importantly, I’d like to know where my children are.”
The Sister was unhurried as she turned back to face Grace. “I am quite sure the doctor explained to you that an urgency order has been granted by a court to hold you here while you are assessed.”
Grace quailed at the clipped tones but Blue’s hand clutched hers, “Yes, I think he said something about that. But where are my clothes?”
“Mrs Carter,” the sister’s lip movements were exaggerated, “the clothes you arrived in were dirty. We felt it kinder to bathe you and provide you with clean garments rather than force you to fester in grubby clothing.”
Grace grimaced, “Well look at the state of me, you surely cannot expect me to wear this, someone else’s clothes?”
“Really, Mrs Carter? So would you rather we left you to run naked through the hospital?”
“Of course not, that is just ridiculous.”
“Well, Mrs Carter, as you can imagine with well over a thousand people in our care at this institution, it would be ridiculous for us to try to keep track of one individual’s clothes. I am sorry if these are not to your satisfaction, perhaps tomorrow will bring a better selection.” Her nostrils flared and, once again, she gave her breasts a little nudge upwards. “Is there anything else I can help you with before I resume my duties?”
“Where are my children?” Grace jutted her chin and met the sister’s stare.
“Your children, Mrs Carter, are in a place of safety.” Sister Burton was glacial and, not quite under her breath added, “For the first time in a long time.”
Grace shivered as the Sister’s marched away. Blue crawled under the bench and hugged her knees.
“Grace has been put in her place,” said Mabel.