As you go off duty in the early morning you listen to the dawns chorus of the birds and think for a moment of other things than bombs and guns and tanks in the atmosphere of which we spend so many of our days.
Grace soon learned, the dawn chorus in Hellingly Mental Hospital was always the same.
Just before six o’clock, metal bed frames would begin to creak, intermittently at first as bodies twitched but more insistently as their occupants stretched the stiffness of slumber away. Following a jangle of bells from the corridors, Nurses clapped and called. Then came groans: some of satisfaction as aches eased, some filled with despair at yet another day. Yawns varied in tone and tune. After that, came shuffling or padding of feet making their way to the lavatories and the last vestiges of night would be flushed away. Laughter and lamentation added to the melody as people greeted one another with good mornings or curses about the weather. The catatonic, bedridden or frail breathed the stench of urine or faeces until their turn came to be roused, washed and dressed by a nurse or Bessie Hough.
Sometimes there’d be squabbles. “Puff, do me today. You did her on Monday and you haven’t done me for weeks.”
“I did you the day before yesterday, sweetie, you just forgot.”
There was a clamour for tea from old crones who couldn’t carry their own, but the able-bodied took cups and saucers to them.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, Doris, I’ve only got one pair of hands.”
“What did your last servant die of?”
“There you go, your ladyship, don’t say I never do anything for you.”
Elsie slept in the next bed so Grace served her tea. Elsie would take the first tentative sip, then sigh with satisfaction and ask, “What day is it?”
Grace would tell her and Elsie would muse before making some comment concerning whatever day it happened to be.
“I always go to tea with Mavis on Thursday.”
“I walk along by the pier.”
“Sometimes we have cake…”
“She makes good rock cakes. Some people don’t like them but Mavis says that means all the more for us”
Then after a short pause Elsie would ask “What day is it?” and they’d go around again, and perhaps a few more times after that. Some mornings Elsie’s prattle would be tolerated, other days it irritated.
“She’s told you seven times already, you daft old bat.”
“Leave her alone, Agnes, she can’t help it, it’s not hurting you.”
If a quarrel ensued it might bring admonishment from a nurse but, on the whole, people were roused and dressed without drama.
On her first morning on the ward Grace had been puzzled when, after breakfast had been cleared away, Sister Burton had stood in the middle of the room, clapped her hands and called, “Coats on and to the airing court, please, everybody.”
That day, Grace’s eyes had been swollen and sore.
The previous night she had tormented herself with images of George’s shock at being met from school by a policeman, of Bobby and Freddy snuggled together, concerned they hadn’t been taken back to Conway Street after their drive, wondering where Mummy was. Her misery was absolute, she sobbed for what seemed like hours. Grief oozed from every pore but nothing eased the agony of separation. For once she was grateful for the chorus of weeping children who joined her because her own tears were insufficient to express her anguish.
She saw her sons on a battleship in the middle of a gun metal sea. Albert stood with them, four in a row holding hands, counting aloud. She knew when they reached ten they would jump into the ocean. One, two, three. She fought to cross the deck to stop them, a vicious wind blew ice splinters into her face. Four, Five, Six. She couldn’t move forward and her screams were lost in the roar of the ocean. Seven, Eight, Nine. She sat up with a shout, heart pounding, relieved for an instant that it was only a dream but then, realising her reality, she sank back, desolate, and cried herself to oblivion all over again.
Later, she was woken by frantic banging on the window next to her bed and shouts of “Mummy”. She flew to the sound, flung the blackout curtain aside and, in that instant, the noise stopped. The silence was complete for a few moments and then the man on the right started his tirade. Grace knew she disgusted him but that night his abuse was titanic. Even with a pillow and bedclothes wrapped around her head, nothing could quiet his obscenities.
It was Bessie who came to find her. She must have heard her whimpers from under the bed where she huddled against the wall, rocking, hopeless.
“You have to come out sweetie. Don’t act up. They’ll put you in seclusion.”
Grace didn’t understand the hissed warning but Bessie’s arms around her were blessed balm and gradually she calmed. Fragmented but still alive, she allowed herself to be coaxed out of her haven and let Bessie remake her bed and tuck her in. While Bessie sat on the edge of the bed stroking her hair from her face, cooing, tender, Blue slid under the covers behind her and snuggled close. The storm passed as Grace, overcome with exhaustion, promised herself she’d be home in a week. It’s just for a week. I can manage a week. Just here for observation and then I’ll be back home in a week.
She remembered little else about that first night and morning, but later, in the airing court, Grace became aware of forty or more women around her. A couple, like Grace, sat alone on wooden benches, watchful. A few were knitting, many sat reading books or periodicals. Some just stared into the distance, deep in thought. One marched around the path which ran between the flower beds and the central lawn as if on an urgent errand. Grace watched her stop to pick at the bark of a birch tree, which came away in satisfying strips, before sniffing at the crisp air and striding on. There were two older ladies in wheelchairs, one smiled easily when she met other eyes but her companion was slumped, head lolling, drowsy and dribbling.
Many of the others strolled arm in arm, or stood in small groups, gossiping, chattering. Some were obviously simpletons, but apart from the high brick wall which enclosed them and the lack of children at their feet, most of them could have been workaday women enjoying a brief sojourn in any park in England, Grace mused.
Grace turned to the sound of an uproarious laugh. About three yards away a flaxen-haired woman who Grace judged to be in her early thirties, sat on a wooden park bench rolling small threads of tobacco into a cigarette paper, rocking with amusement while a younger girl with short, conker-dark hair was beside her, whispering close to her ear. Grace watched as they erupted with amusement again.
“Oh Ed, you are a one,” the blonde shrieked, wiping the back of her hand across an eye and gasping for breath. “My Charlie would have a purple fit if he knew I was even listening!”
Ed’s face lit up. She was obviously delighted by the scolding. “What your Charlie doesn’t see he can’t grieve over. Think of it as a compensation for your incarceration.”
“Be back in a jiffy, just off to get a light for this.” The blonde waggled her thin cigarette, her hips rolling as she crossed the grass. Grace watched Ed’s eyes follow her friend until she was out of sight then cast a languid look around, pushing her hands into the pockets of her slacks. Grace averted her eyes an instant too late and studied her fingernails, anticipating a rebuke.
“Hallo there, you’re new aren’t you?” said a well-spoken voice.
Grace blinked up and met the striking hazel eyes of the willowy girl, her hair was cut close to her head but still had a wave. The young woman thrust out a hand.
“I am only here temporarily.” Grace let the words tumble from her mouth and was half surprised to hear they came out in the right order. Ed shrugged and flung herself onto the bench next to Grace, pulled out a small pack of cigarette papers and started to roll a cigarette. Grace caught a slight movement from the doorway to the ward, through which Peggy had disappeared. She peeped from beneath her eyebrows.
Sister Burton was watching. What was she looking for?
Grace gave herself a little shake and forced her lips into a watery smile as she addressed Ed. “What I meant was, I’m Grace and I’m pleased to meet you. I’m here for observation.” She felt her lips quiver.
“I know it’s awfully tough at first but, I promise you, you will get used to it.” Ed told her as she lifted one ankle onto the knee of the other leg and rested a forearm on her raised thigh.
The striding lady passed them, intent on her errand, shoes clacking on the path.
“I hope you’re right. I’m sorry, I don’t normally look quite this haggard,” Grace pointed at her own face and drew a circle in the air. “Bad night I’m afraid.”
“We all have those, darling! I cried all night for about the first week. I’m Ed, by the way. Eddie Ford.”
“Yes, I overheard your friend call you Ed a few minutes ago.”
“Who, Peggy? Yes she went to get a light. Just another bloody inconvenience.”
“No matches,” Eddie explained but the penny still hadn’t dropped. “We are not allowed matches, you see.” She grunted. “Wouldn’t want a bunch of loonies running around with matches now, would they? Think of the trouble we could cause.”
Grace smiled wryly at the thought of a huge bonfire but shrugged. “I see, well just as well I don’t smoke then, I suppose.”
“Oh, you soon will darling, you mark my words. Although you’ll spend longer trying to find a nurse for a light than actually smoking the wretched thing. They’re never around when you need them! But, I suppose there is a war on and they can’t get the staff.”
The conversation idled, and Grace glanced towards the place Sister Burton had been. She was still there, staring, frowning slightly, her hands clasped just beneath that scaffolded bosom.
Eddie was talking again, Grace tried to concentrate on what she was saying. “Mind you, I wouldn’t want to work here, would you? I’d join the Land Army if I could, although I’m sure Father wouldn’t approve. That said, there isn’t a great deal about me Daddy does approve of, so no change there. I work on the farm here, much to his chagrin. I prefer the outdoors.”
“Which farm? Is there a farm near here?” Grace forced herself to speak.
“Yes, well no, darling. It’s the hospital farm. There are only pigs now, more’s the pity, and they’ve turned most of it over to wheat and vegetables. We grow oodles of stuff. Potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, sprouts, you name it. We’re quite self-sufficient.”
“I’ve got a vegetable patch at home. I like growing vegetables, the dirt under my fingernails…” Grace‘s swollen tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she had a sudden vision of weeds choking the parsnips and cabbages.
Eddie gave Grace a sideways glance and slapped her thighs with both palms. “Well then, you should ask to work on the farm here when you get your work therapy assigned. They normally only have the men working on the farm and we have to work in the laundry or the needle room, but since the war they’ve let a few of us girls get our hands dirty.”
“Thank you, but I won’t be here that long, I have children, five-year old twins and a son of twelve…” Grace swallowed against ever present tears and squeezed her hands together, interlocking her fingers and pushing them into her lap. Blue waved and smiled from the shadow beneath the wall, beside a large camellia bush. “So, Eddie, is that short for Edwina?”
“Sadly not. It’s Edna if you must know and I hate it. And even that’s my middle name, my first name is even worse.”
“I like Edna, it’s a pretty name. What’s this awful first name then?”
Eddie tapped the side of her nose with a forefinger. “Top secret, old girl.”
“I am sure it’s not that bad.”
“I promise you it is.”
“Well I shan’t tell anyone, cross my heart.” Grace tapped her left shoulder and her right side and then crossed herself the other way.
Eddie turned her head from side to side as if checking for eavesdroppers and then, in a low voice, said, “It’s Gertrude. I’m Gertrude Edna Marguerite Butterick-Ford. Loads of ancient aunts to be feted you see. Right old mouthful eh?” Throwing her head back she brayed, “Gertie. Can you imagine? Flirty Gertie, Dirty Gertie!”
Grace experienced a sudden chill. “My mother’s middle name was Gertrude, she’s Edith Gertrude. Edith is my middle name. I detest it.” Grace wondered if she had said those thoughts aloud, she couldn’t tell for sure but she heard herself croak, ”I don’t much like Grace either.”
The years fell away and she remembered how, when the telegram had arrived from her brother, Harry, to say their father was asking for her, she’d gone at once, pathetically grateful and forgiving every slight in an instant. Her mother’s voice had dripped with venom. “You think it’s you he wants! You always did think the world revolved around you. You self-centred fool. It isn’t you!”
“Hey, are you cold?” Eddie interrupted.
“No, I’m fine.” Grace’s teeth chattered.
“But you are shivering like mad, darling! Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Honestly, I’m perfectly fine,” Grace shut her eyes to try and make the memory go away but it only made it more vivid like a Pathe News reel playing on her eyelids.
She remembered how her mother’s face crumpled in pain, “I’d have called you Mary but, no, he insisted on Grace, it was years before I found out why. Can you imagine how I felt when I realised?” She had shrunk from Grace’s attempt to comfort her. “Don’t touch me. You always took his side, you always tried to make me look bad in his eyes. I tried so hard. I loved him so much. You should never love a man who has lost his heart before. There is always a part of them out of your reach.”
“Grace, old girl, are you sure you’re all right?” Eddie peered into her face. “You really are shaking. Shall I get a nurse? Are you going to have a fit or something?”
“Actually I think you’re right, I’m probably getting cold. I’ll walk around a little and warm myself up.”
Peggy was bounding towards them with her lighted cigarette so Grace made her escape easily. She stumbled away as memories boiled in her head, threatening to burst it apart.
She had begged, “What are you talking about, Mum? Please, stop. Please, you’re frightening me.”
“Frightening you! You don’t know the meaning of the word. I was frightened every bloody day. Terrified people would find out.” Her mother’s vituperation seemed to gather momentum. Grace saw the loathing on her face. “When you were small you’d totter over and he’d smother you with kisses and croon, ‘My Gracie Girl’. He was always singing to you and you’d snuggle up to him like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth. I used to feel good about that, like he loved me all the more for giving him you. I even sang He calls me his own Grace Darling in the act. I was so humiliated when I found out the truth. I assumed we’d get married as soon as I was twenty-one, when I didn’t need permission. He kept making excuses, it took me months to get it out of him. We already had Harry and you and I was pregnant with—”
“Mum, please stop. Don’t.” Grace had choked on tears.
“Stop? I wish I’d been able to stop the merry-go-round and get off but I was already in too deep with a brood of bastard children. It didn’t bother him because everyone thought we were already married anyway.” Edith spat her words as if their taste was putrid. “But he couldn’t marry me, could he? He was already married. To her. To Grace-bloody-Legge. So don’t flatter yourself it’s you he wants, don’t flatter yourself.”
Grace panted as she stood in the flower bed next to Blue in shelter of the red brick wall behind the camellia, remembering how her mother, exhausted by her outburst, had eventually stepped aside to allow Grace to say a final farewell to her father. After a short hesitation, she went to him, ashen-faced.
Grace was there as he fought for his last few breaths, she alone watched the life leave his body. Henry, a man whose voice had given such pleasure to so many, whose songs invited applause and approbation. He had made his livelihood and fed his family with lyrics and verse. He had dazzled men and wooed women with soliloquies and sonnets. He had won Edith with promises and kept her with love songs. The obscene irony of being suffocated by his own cancerous tongue was not lost on his only daughter.
At least the family had been spared the indignity of a paupers’ burial by the Variety Hall Benevolent Society. Grace’s mother-in-law had been happy to have her little grandson, George, while Grace and her husband, Albert, took the train to London. Albert had worn a dark suit, lent to him by a friend. As the drizzle shrouded the small party, Grace had become aware of a sour smell, like vomit, as the damp released the previous incarnations of Albert’s borrowed clothes. They’d left straight after the service, insisting they needed to hurry to catch a train back to Brighton. None of Grace’s family had implored her to linger or even commented on her haste to leave. Grace’s four brothers were crowded around their mother who’d leaned on them, weeping prettily into a lace handkerchief.
Grace sniffed and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. Why did she always let things bother her? Albert used to tell her to just put the past behind her and forget it. But, no, she relived the slights, the hurts. It was like picking a scab just as it was healing over. She straightened pushing her shoulders back and met Sister Burton’s gaze.
“Christ, has she nothing better to do than watch me?” Grace spoke aloud.
“She’s observing you, not watching” said Blue with a giggle, making binoculars with her thumbs and forefingers and holding them to her eyes.
“I’ll give her something worth looking at if she isn’t very careful.” Grace clicked her heels and made a sharp salute in the direction of the window behind which the Sister was standing. Sister Burton smiled and turned away.