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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
In the garden he has trained roses through the frames of medicine trolleys and up stairwell cages made to thwart patient suicides. From the trees he hangs emergency eyewash stations filled with water, and seed dispensers that were once miniature incinerators mounted in every ward for the quick disposal of tainted materials. Sometimes he sits and watches the birds enjoying his hospitality, from a bench of wheelchairs lashed together with bathing harnesses.
He has ventured outside on this damp April afternoon to replenish the feeders and forage a little for himself. Pulling his oxygen cylinder behind him on its stainless steel caddy, he advances, a creeping shadow against the pale facade of Revenant House. He can feel cold soak spreading across his feet. Shouldn’t have come out in his slippers. He passes an apple tree and remembers how once, after some stupid argument, his daughter climbed it and wouldn’t come down. She said she would stay up there until he apologised, and he was stubborn enough to shout at her that he never would. She was fifteen – far too old for that kind of thing – but that didn’t stop her. He can still see the red trainers on her feet, hanging down like fruit, as he pretended to be getting on with his work inside, but checked the window every five minutes to make sure she was safe.
He stops by the lake to watch a thin band of mist rolling over the water, and listen to the babble of the birds as word spreads that he’s replenished their supplies. He feels the wave of nausea that strikes whenever he forgets to have lunch: time to eat. He grows tomatoes in an old hospital tour bus, which, when it was on wheels and not stacks of crumbling bricks, was used to take patients on excursions. He sows in stages, trying to achieve the longest possible crop, but it’s still a bit early in the year: when he looks hopefully through the window he can see no red among the green. As usual the chickens are his best hope. He makes his daily raid on the coop, pondering all the poor souls whose lives played out in the hospital, and thinking that eggs are unrealised futures too – best-laid plans, hopes dashed and scrambled.
Three eggs, fragile in his pocket: now that he has them, he feels armed against the evening. Back in the kitchen he sits perched by the range on a hospital stool, letting the pan of water boil for longer than it needs to so that the steam will heat the air around him. He drinks sweet, strong tea from a pint mug. He melts some butter, and tips in the mixing bowl’s marbled emulsion. A little whisk as they seethe into substance, and he eats the eggs straight from the pan, too quickly, enjoying the hot catch at the back of his throat.
A noise at the window makes him jump, and he wonders if it will be one of those days when trespassers are a nuisance. They still come, sometimes – local kids, pumped up on boredom, trying to spook themselves. He hears things in the night and goes down to find a bonfire lit, with bottles strewn round it, and a music machine throbbing nearby. The fleeing rabble taunts him from the darkness. He has become that old man, an object for their sport.9
He wants to explain to them that he didn’t intend to end up like this – that he moved here on the understanding that the hospital would be redeveloped in no time – but it would be pointless. It suits them to see him as a creepy adornment to the place: the patient who never went home; the mad, self-medicating doctor. When he braves a trip into town he can feel eyes on him in the supermarket car park, and a simple grocery shop can wreck his nerves for days.
Later, there will be evening hours with a bottle and a fire, and perhaps a copy of a small periodical he once edited called the Milan Review. For now, it is time to get back to work. Dragging his oxygen behind him, he makes his way slowly down the corridor to the ground-floor day room he uses as his study. He looks around him at the walls, where faded patient murals are peeling. He lowers himself into his knackered green armchair, and runs a palm down its lumpy fabric in search of the respirator pipe, which is kept in place by a table knife embedded into the stuffing. A cough is rising, but he tries to limit its expression to an extended clearing of the throat and a hoarse, high whimper. A full fit now would take too much recovery time. At the slow pace that he has learned works best for the avoidance of panic, he switches from his cylinder to the machine that is permanently installed at the chair’s side. He fixes its lugs into his nostrils, and flicks the switch. It breathes for him with its soft thud and hiss, sending cool jets of improved air into his head.
Lying on a pad of paper in front of the armchair is the battered stainless steel pen he always writes with – a gift from his late wife. He takes out a new sheet of paper, and settles himself. Press on.
The project lasted a century, more or less. Now the era of Big Bins is over. And whatever we may think of places like this, we won’t be seeing anything on their scale again.
Wreaking was huge enough both to feed and feed off its environment. Two adjacent farms supplied its food (and provided employment to those patients deemed capable). There was a butcher, a grocer and a hairdresser. A mortuary, a coffin-maker and a graveyard. It had its own railway station, and room for up to 3,000 patients. I can only imagine how the staff here must have scoffed when it was announced that their charges were to be relocated somewhere called the Community.
The hospital is set in 180 acres of ground overlooking an estuary, whose water tumbles into a widening shale mouth as it approaches the shore. One bank of the river carries on into the North Sea, becoming the bleached, bare arm of a shingle spit known locally as the Ness.
The only way to get any sense of the scale is to pick your way inland, across the water meadow that declines in wilderness as the formal grounds take hold. From out there, Wreaking is flat and vast, occupying an outrageous proportion of the horizon.
Your approach will bring you in past the great perimeter ditch that used to hide a sunken security fence, in the days before pharmacological shackles made physical confinement redundant. Beyond hat, the detail of the hospital begins to sharpen up: its follies and adornments; its long, dark-bricked walls. Wreaking was built during a golden age of asylum architecture, and even its most functional outbuildings have ornate touches: spires and turrets; gargoyles and angels.
The hospital has long been a target for vandals. Thieves have stripped it of its metal and equipment, and kids have set fires there during mindless parties. The assembly hall, the chapel, the wards: all now bare open wounds with charred timbers and plaster that has sagged and collapsed, letting in weather and all the life it brings.
I have done my best to fight the rot, though I am only one man. I scour the corridors for relics. I hoard old papers. I collect unbroken china and stack it carefully in my kitchen. It is not a position I asked for, but I have become the curator of this place by default, because if I don’t save these things then nobody else will. And in spite of all my best efforts, the grounds are still dotted with incongruous objects: walking frames, bathing chairs, a shoe or two (but never in pairs). The hospital contents have seeped outside as if in pursuit of the patients. The building is forlorn: its ground-floor windows are boarded up, and the whole, dark shell is defended now by spiked metal fences and warning signs. It is not what was supposed to happen here at all.
He still strikes out for the main hospital from time to time. It is riskier, with his breathing like this, but if he takes his cylinder and allows himself plenty of breaks, it’s just possible to get around. The day rooms and dormitories may be empty, but their spongy carpets and levering floorboards are coming to life. Ivy that was putting out fine, exploratory tendrils against the wallpaper when he arrived here has grown thick, confident branches. Burnt-out chairs seem to be taking root where they stand. The innards of the building hang from the ceiling: tongues of dusty cladding; viscera of wires and pipework. Shapes are suggested by the constantly shifting textures of wall-mould: a cackling witch; an awful, leprous face.
His daughter worries. She assumes he is lonely, and she doesn’t even know how ill he is. If she could only hear the portentous language his doctors use. They talk of his lung burden. He has been formally appraised that if he doesn’t take it easy on his heart, he will be at risk of a major event. Cleo doesn’t even know all that, and still she wants him to leave.
He can’t leave. He has become addicted to the chatter of the past down those corridors. Corridors that once smelt of bleach and floor polish and gave prim squeaks under the footsteps of bustling nurses. Corridors with a hundred years’ worth of linoleum scratches – all the marks of trolleys and wheelchairs and walking sticks and struggling boots, refusing to go quietly. Corridors where (he imagines, ghoulishly disregarding the facts) the light dipped as they administered doses of ECT. Corridors where consequences were addressed – sometimes even for the better.
Preserving the case notes seems particularly important: catalogues of lost folk, in folders that he has rescued by the barrow-load. Without his intervention the files would be gone by now, and there would be no record of these people at all. Some days he just picks a patient and spends the afternoon with them, trying to reconstruct the decisions made on their behalf, the direction they received.
. . . intelligent and pleasant young woman with a marked obsessional personality associated with feelings of guilt. In this she is a mirror of her father whom she describes as viciously strict and fussy to the extent that her house had to be kept spotless when she was growing up, and friends were never allowed in. She pictured herself as the perfect mother and fell short of this when her baby was recently scalded . . .
. . . patient is a single man who feels nervous and frightened all the time and is frightened of going outside. He says he is self-conscious and cannot talk to people. He is the youngest of six and was born when his mother was about forty-five. One of his brothers has already been treated at Wreaking for depression
. . . . . . saw this patient again this afternoon. She says she feels much calmer on the Mogadon and has been shouting less at her children. We discussed further the circumstances of her husband’s affair, which she continues to attribute to the abnormal size of her nose. Nothing I say can stop her believing . . .
He wraps his dressing gown in tighter, hugging himself against the damp, and takes up his pen for another burst.
Revenant House was built later than the main hospital, as a sub-clinic or ‘villa’ within its grounds – initially run as a separate institution, then assimilated by the monster it adjoins. As Wreaking’s acute unit, it came to house an ECT suite, a mother-and-baby unit and an occupational-therapy department. For the best part of twenty years, since its closure, it has been my home.
While I well know how cruelty can thrive in tucked-away places like this, it seems obvious from all the records that the founder of Revenant House was a good man. He gave it that name in the hope that within its walls, his patients would come back to themselves. To whoever they had been before the thing that deviated them. He was a great one for cause and effect.
For a while, after Wreaking absorbed it, I think the building was given a more anodyne name, like the Jasmine Wards and Petunia Courts so much in evidence elsewhere. But it takes more than a change of signpost to get people round here to forget, and the original name lived on, as did its curious local corruption, the Remnant House.
This building has a different atmosphere to the rest of the hospital. Larches loom, and generate a warm, coniferous hum. Their needles collapse in crackling footfalls as you walk. White walls and covered verandas distinguish it from the Gotham whose unthinkable domination begins just over the road. This man, the founder – his name was Pym – developed an early, eccentric form of meditative therapy based around water. He identified a spring-fed pond at the rear of the building and fed it up into a small lake. He made a feature of it, and built pavilions enabling his patients to regard the water from every possible angle. It was a cornerstone of his approach to care, that there were near-unlimited ways of looking at a situation, and you just had to keep looking until you found the right one.
He even managed to build a pavilion beneath the water’s surface – a dome of thick glass bricks, accessible through a tunnel offthe hospital basement. Patients were allowed in by appointment, for contemplation and relaxation. They could see the shadows of carp nudging the glass when the sun was shining. There was room for a couple of comfortable chairs. The water created a dampened, close acoustic. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before some unfortunate from Wreaking found her way over here and opened her wrists in the water with a piece of broken glass, weighing herself down for good measure with two pockets full ofrooflead. Her body’s black shadow drifted over the domed surface ofthe underwater pavilion, to the great distress of the poor soul whose special treat it was to be sealed in there for the afternoon.
After that, Revenant House came into line with the thinking elsewhere, which held, quite sensibly I suppose, that to build madhouses beside water was essentially a bad idea. The lake was fenced off, and left to choke itself with weeds, with the dome a curious polyp at its centre.
But I revived it. The first thing I did, before I even brought my family here, was to coax the old spring back into the watercourse and feed it up again. It is the only example of anything round here being restored. Everything else is going in the opposite direction.
One day, he decided to try and fish standing on top of the underwater room. He pulled on his waders and announced it. ‘I bet you a million pounds you fall in,’ said Cleo, who was never one to keep her thoughts to herself.
‘You’re on,’ he said. ‘You can pay me back in instalments.’
He had imagined she would set herself up at the side to watch him, in one of the waterside pavilions. But of course, she had a better idea. He didn’t even know where she was until he was already stepping off the little rowing boat and placing his first tentative footsteps on the slimy glass of the dome, only to feel her, right there, thumping at the glass under his feet with a broom handle. She tapped each foot as it touched, and he could even hear the distant peal of her laughter under the water, and after that it was only a matter of time before he fell in. He can still remember the panic as he grabbed for a low-hanging branch and missed, as his waders started to fill up and he realised he had to get them off or he would go down. These days he tells himself that he let himself fall because he wanted her to win the bet. But he knows that’s not quite true. He wanted desperately to be proved right, and he would have stayed on his feet if he had been able. Incredible how Cleo can creep up on him, whatever he may think he is thinking about. It used to be her mother who did that, in the years after she died. Now, it is Cleo. Cleo who feels so distant from him that she might as well be dead herself.
He writes sometimes about how buildings like this one have memories. You won’t ever catch him calling them ghosts, but he does imagine he can almost feel it sometimes – a kind of psychic residue from all the people who roamed these corridors, stuck in feedback loops of thought or behaviour. Unable to forget or abstract.
‘Remind you of anyone?’ he says to the empty room, and makes himself laugh.
‘Fuck off,’ he tells himself, by way of a rejoinder.
Oh well. Here we go again. He’s written it so many times now that one more go won’t hurt. He takes up the pen, resigned to it.
This is the same vile green chair I was sitting in on the day of the accident. One of many things left behind by the hospital that we said we were going to chuck out and never did. God knows what has been spilled into it over the years.
If I were melodramatic, I would write that Cleo’s accident plays out in front of me every day. That when I visit the projection room at the back of the Wreaking assembly hall, and try to start the machine that sits there among curls of dusty, spoiling film, there is only ever one vision I see – the one that plays out in my head.
It’s not like that. It was one thing that went wrong, and I don’t think about it all the time. Some people – the cause-and-effect monkeys – they’d say it was everything, the accident. They’d have me acting it out in some ghastly role-playing exercise. But it wasn’t everything. It was what it was, and it was nobody’s fault.
Blunted September colours were taking over. We were leaving doors open, partly because we were still psychologically in summer, and partly to try and rid the building of the smell of smoke from a house fire the week before. I sat at my desk, in this chair, watching a daddy-long-legs blunder into a wall, when in she came, breathless and bounding.
Her face then was a rehearsal of her adult features. The button of a nose, those thin, guileless lips with their first brash coating of lipstick. That mouth, free of worry, accustomed to burst open in proper, helpless hilarity at any provocation. The brow ready to furrow at any injustice. Those strong, green eyes.
And even though I had listened to her messing around outside with a full, pleading heart only minutes before, the act of her coming in made me feel encroached upon, and I snapped at her. She seemed hurt, but only mock-hurt, as she had been many times before. If I could just finish what I had been doing – then, I thought, I would be in the right mood to make it up to her later on.
How did it go?
‘I want to ask you something. It’s important.’ Red-faced, determined, a little out of breath.
‘Ask me later.’
‘I said it was important.’
‘Ask me later.’
‘But I might not want to later.’ ‘
You’ll be the same person, won’t you?’
Except that she wasn’t. When I saw her next, she had become a different person altogether.
The ink is not yet dry but already he is screwing up the page and throwing it aside. The machine taps and sighs, but his ragged breathing is not keeping time. He reaches inside the desk drawer, knowing they’re here, tingling in their box: cigarettes. He forces his hand to stop, and focuses instead on the soft gargling of a pigeon outside. Time to let go of himself for a moment, and try to calm down.
Depersonalisation is the word the professionals use. He experiences it here a lot: a kind of untethering of the self. New mothers are depersonalised when the enormity of their duty of care begins to dawn, and the great myth of their own lives begins to lose definition. The residents of large asylums were depersonalised, too, whenever staff got confused by their freedom and power, and succumbed to the temptation to stop seeing their patients as people.
He has no sense of how the disconnection feels to others, but he knows that he can get very far away from himself if he wants – so far that he wonders whether he will return. All he has to do is stare at an object for long enough that it is stripped of meaning in the world. The stripping-off spreads, so quickly it is terrifying, to take from everything else around it, himself included. This room, with its peeling walls and damp carpets – it might be anywhere. And he might be anyone. Which is a good way of keeping emotion in check.
He closes the drawer and fumbles again for the pen, trying to keep his breaths in time with the soothing sound of the pigeon. What he is about to do will upset him, and that will lead to coughing. But that at least might make him tired enough to sleep.
The birds have moved in properly since I’ve been here alone. I think they know the place is theirs now. I can watch them for hours, from the grand display of an eye of starlings opening and closing in the sky, to the solitary robin pecking at one of my feeders. Even when I don’t see them, I hear them: the soft clatter of wings as a dove flees the clock tower; the riffle of pages overhead as a strip of songbirds flashes through. Starlings, glossy and sleek. Their flutter and commotion. The morning of the accident, they were everywhere. Edging the outbuildings with black. Ecstatic flashes of them bathing in the shallows of the lake.
I went outside to find her and tell her I hadn’t meant it, to take it back and offer her whatever consolation she wanted. I called her name. Then I realised there was nothing to be done except to go back to my desk.
I sat here for two hours, trying to work. I heard the odd noise – a shifting of floorboard, a scuffle in the rafters – but that was always happening. Even then, the fabric was so packed with rats and birds that the house was never silent.
Then something made me turn in my chair – a tiny exhalation that sounded as if it was in the room with me. I noticed that a shadow on the wall had changed. And I saw it was her arm. How had she stolen in here without me even noticing?
The terrible thing had happened. It was right here, and I hadn’t even noticed. She had gone to earth like a wounded creature, and I had worked on. She lay face down on the floor under the window. As I turned her over, I saw the blood that had flowed from her botched eye to coat her face. And though she remained silent throughout, I screamed and screamed.
James Scudamore is the author of three novels. The Amnesia Clinic won the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Heliopolis was nominated for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Wreaking is his most recent book. Watch a trailer for the novel and find out more at jamesscudamore.com