Short story: Tears and Sand

Kate Cleaver

Vernon House Insane Asylum

September 1876

“Stay,” the nurse says.

I sit but why should I stay? What reason…? I feel my eyes fixing again. The carpet has such patterns that I can see. So many colours.

Needs cleaning.

The housekeeper is loud.

Should be cleaned.

We could play… another voice says.

I try to ignore both.

The sane part of me, there is a little left, understands that I’m convenient. I sit and I wait. I don’t move. Something paralysis.

Can we play?

I ignore the voice.

The light moves. It’s slow but can speed up.

Nurses pass.

“She never moves,” one says.

“No,” the pincher says. I remember her. Trying to pinch me and make me shout and cry. I hadn’t. “She never does.”

People says the man. He is there to protect me. I once thought it was my husband but it isn’t. I look through the corner of my eye. Not moving. If I don’t move then they leave me alone.

 

Another patient, another family. The girl supported between the two gentlemen. Father? Maybe… The scent of road dust filters though the door and for a moment I see sky. The younger man glances at me and smiles. I see but I do nothing. To move, to smile would be to give myself away. In here I am protected.

We could escape, a small voice says. I suppose we could but why… They look after me here. I am the asylums’ doll. Carted out and placed in view.

Do you not see how we look after the patients? Isn’t she pretty… Everyone can get better.

I want to crack a smile and turn to those guests and say that it isn’t happy and wonderful. To not believe the lies. But I daren’t. I can’t. If I move then I will be noticed and if I’m noticed then they will see me.

Don’t let them see you.

For once I agree. They can’t see me.

I’ve tried to remember why I’m here. I used to ask the question.

You are bad, a man thunders in my head.

Another places a ghostly hand around my shoulders and tried to comfort me. I accept the comfort but I know that if I were to look I’d see nothing. Opposite me there is a mirror. I just have to focus. It is amazing how much effort this takes. I feel a wave of exhaustion and I briefly close my eyes, maybe trying to rest them.

“Did she just move?” a woman says.

Cold creeps along my limbs. Had I moved?

“No,” another says. “She doesn’t.”

“I’m sure she did.” The voice isn’t one I know so I have a feeling that it must be a visitor. She sounds young but I could be wrong. I don’t move and I don’t have to. There is suddenly a face directly in front of me. If she is trying to scare me then this isn’t the way to do it. I am immune to these silly games. They used to scare me. Try to shock me out of me ‘bad dream’ but I always win the game now.

“Alice,” a low voice calls and I feel fear crawl across my skin. “Don’t bother the patients.”

“This one seems very compliant,” the woman in front says. She must have had pickle for her lunch. I can smell cheese and tea with the sharp tang of something. Maybe an onion. My mouth wants to fill with saliva thinking of the food. Anything would be better than the grey gruel we are given. But we are only allowed bland food. No colours, not brightness, no sharp tastes. Anything to enliven us may bring on an attack.

“Don’t bother Miss Frances, when riled she can be…difficult.” I know that voice. It is the voice of fate, of mine and every other patient in this place. Dr Charles Pegge, the man who could condemn us or save us with one flourish of his wrist. This man I fear.

“She doesn’t look difficult,” Alice stands showing me a beautiful blue skirt. I used to wear clothes such as these. “Really brother, you ought to be nicer to your patients, especially those that pay.”

“I am nice and anyway, Miss Frances is here to forget and be forgotten, for a small sum.” He laughs. Inside I am dying. There is no point me waiting to be rescued. If he is right then I am here…

Forever! The man’s cruel voice echoes in my head. I know that voice. It is my father. He was firm but never cruel. I wonder why he is cruel now. I don’t understand the change in him. I loved him. I dedicated my life to him.

I had been only ten when he had taken me to one side and told me I was the woman of the house.

“You mother has passed,” he’d said.

“Mother?” She had been fine that morning before I had gone out to the haberdasher’s.

“Yes,” his stern gaze fixing me in place and making me unable to move. Since then I had done his bidding. I stepped into my mother’s role and never married. Not that I think I could have: there was never anyone…

Liar, a young voice says and in my mind I close my eyes. I see, not the forty two year old version but the eighteen year old. Quick to smile but standing back from the crowd. Trying to hide my worn hands. Only eighteen and my body had shown signs I was more than a gentleman’s daughter.

I’d been embarrassed then but I wish I could take to one side that girl and tell her to try. To talk to the others and smile at the man who smiled at her. I’d place my ghostly hands in the centre of her back and push her toward him. How many times have I played the difference out in my head. The marriage and the children. How many times have I sobbed at the loss. I didn’t talk with them. And when my father suggested that I stop going I agreed.

“You have far too many responsibilities here with your brothers and sisters, and caring for the house. I think your path lies here.”

I didn’t argue I simply said yes.

Of course we then became hated by most. Rent collector. Rent man. Hide from him. Scream at his daughter. Turn your smile away.

I became alone.

I’m here, my child says.

I place a ghostly hand on his ghostly head, marvelling a the dark fine texture of his hair. He looks so much like my father. My child. I gather him into my arms and squeeze. He isn’t like other children. He loves being held and I don’t use a nanny. Why would I when I have the time to spend with him?

Can we play? He asks.

Not now, I answer in my head. I place him on the floor and drift back to my self. The woman, Alice, is still in front of me but next to her is the doctor. I don’t want to say his name, I don’t want to think his name. This name haunts my life.

“You can see,” he is saying, “that the madness is present even in her eye colour.”

“Really?” Alice replies and even if she appears to agree I can hear scepticism.

“Yes,” the pride on his voice makes me shudder. “It is in the green hue.”

There is a pause and then Alice’s face is directly in front of me. Looming. I don’t move but for the first time in almost 6 months I feel as if I might. This is the doctor’s sister and therefore as scary as him. Does she hold any power? She gets closer and closer until I can only see her eyes. I do notice that she too has green in them. Maybe she is touched by madness? Is that why she is here? Is he committing his own sister?

“I can see the green,” Alice says and then pulls back sharply. “Brother you ought to increase the hygiene of the patients.” She is using a free hand to scrub at her nose.

The me from before would have been mortified but this me isn’t. This one feels pity that the girl has had to smell what I have become. If I were talking then I would tell her of the cold showers and the towel that is used for more than one patient. That you have to watch it used to scrub open sores and blemishes and then after the old cold water has been poured over your body and you sit in someone else’s filth, they use that towel to dry you, leaving marks and scrapings of blood and pus. That is what she smells.

Might be your teeth, beloved.

My husband. I know he isn’t but I still listen to him. He has never been mean or evil.

You stink, my father says and internally I cringe. I know I do. My teeth wobble in the gums and my gums bleed. I have tried to stop them from brushing them. The rough scrubbing could knock them out. I should feel pain but I don’t. I really don’t feel much of anything but numbness.

“It could be the medication,” the doctor is saying.

“What?” Alice asks and I echo the word in my head.

“Laudanum,” he says. “I can be sweet and can rot the teeth.”

He has been giving me what?

I know this drug. It rots you. I’ve seen it used with friends and family. My father… I used to…

It was your fault I died! My father screams. Should I listen to him? What if he is right and it is? What if I killed him?

“She really moved then,” Alice says.

The doctor sighs. “It was a twitch, an involuntary one. It is a shame really.”

Alice turns from me and looks at him. The back of her skirt has a little mud on it. My father would never have allowed that. He was meticulous in his cleanliness.

“She will pass into complete paralysis soon,” he says and now it is his face I see. “Then she will die.” There is no emotion except as he stands he smiles.

“Why do you smile brother?” Alice asks.

“She was brought in by her uncle but he has his own problems so he left her a small independency. Something that ought to have been hers from an inheritance.” He shrugs, he doesn’t care. “It is what keeps her here. If she were to walk out those doors then I couldn’t stop her. She is paying for her own incarceration.”

I am stuck dumb with this revelation. My voices are quiet. I feel a man’s hand take hold of mine and a child the other. We could walk out of here.

No! My father cries. You killed me and deserve to be here. I can feel the pain and the guilt that is my father beating against my skull. It is like a long slow heartbeat. It never stops. Did I kill him?

I remember him sick. His hand shaking to hold a spoon until I had to push food into his mouth, only to watch it tumble out as he refused to eat. Even here. Even with the cold sludge that she was served. The taste of off fat and turned milk. Even that she would swallow. Before, when she had hope another had talked to her and said to eat what she was given. That if she didn’t she would get sick and then die. She hasn’t died but she knew the nurses tutted over the hair.

“It is so thin now,” one had said.

“Do you care?” the pincher had asked.

“Yes,” the other had said. “Who else can we pose? The sodomite?”

The pincher laughed. “Put him in a dress…”

That day they had even been laughing as they placed me near the door.

The door.

Could I do it? Simply leave.

“Have you told her brother?” Alice asks.

“What?”

“That she could leave?”

“No,” he sounds genuinely surprised at this thought.

I wonder where I will go.

Home! cries my child but I’m not sure that is an option. I wish my head were clear. I wish I didn’t have the fog of medication. For a second I wonder what will happen if I stop the medicine, but I know this as well. My father was losing himself, mentally and physically. I was giving him laudanum and decided to stop. He cried and begged. Will I?

Who do I cry and beg to?

“I guess,” Alice says, “that she will be alone out there.”

“Out?” The Doctor follows her gaze and looks at the door. “Yes, she would. Strangely though, her father’s lawyer has asked after her a couple of times.”

Mr Finchley has asked? No family member but Mr Finchley?

“No family?” Alice asks and bends down to look at me in pity.

Careful, I think, you have the eye colour of madness. They will put you away as well. Tell you that you are going for your own good. Tell you that it will help you grieve. They lie.

Mummy, don’t cry. I bend and in my mind I take him into my arms and scream my frustration and pain. Arms come around me and I lean back into the warmth that is my own man. My father walks, his cane quickly forgotten and this back straightening as he gets closer until he isn’t the grey haired frail shadow of recent life but the man I knew.

You are strong, he says. My Frances.

I wait. I know what I want him to say. But the ghost remains silent.

“Is she crying?” Alice asks.

I look through my father and into the mad sane eyes of the doctor’s sister.

“I really doubt it,” he says. “Alice, we must go.”

“Promise me brother that you will make sure this patient has better care,” Alice says.

There is a pause… All I can see is the face of this girl who assumes that she will make everything better with a few words.

“Yes, of course,” the doctor says. “Miss Blanch you can make it happen?”

“Yes, I’ll make sure she is taken care of.” I recognise that voice. It is the pincher. Inside I scream louder. Why can’t Alice see that she has made my life so much worse. I remember the last time. The bruises and trying to breathe past the broken rib. Every breath a rattle, pain so deep that I had cut myself off from the outside world.

Then the injections. The laudanum, and the isolation. Surely there is nothing worse? But as I hear the pincher step closer and feel her rough touch on top of my head I realise that there is worse to come. That I have more to come. Can Alice not see the malicious soul that touches me?

But as she smiles and nods, I realise that she can’t. Of course, the nurses who are picked to come to this place, this peacock of a room, are all well mannered and able to hide their true nature. That is what this lavishly decorated room is for. The sweeping staircase and the patterned floors. Even the flowers in vases are a lie. They aren’t fresh and lovely. Their lives have been cut as short as the stems. Forced to suck up sugar and water to keep the fresh look but in reality with every second they become closer to the dead they already are. That is what this place is. I sit and finish the bouquet. Another type of rare flower in the asylum, one that can be fed drugs so that she won’t wilt and fall.

No, mummy.

What? I ask my son. You weren’t dying when they bought you in. Your uncle cut you and placed you here. Feet immersed in medication and face fair.

I look at my ghostly son. What if I lose you?

Never, my husband says. Tightening his grip. We will be here inside you.

Even I, my father says.

The man I want to say sorry and the one who never can.

You understand why? he says and his voice echoes around my skull.

I do. If you say sorry then I have wasted it all. I hold out my hands and sand slips through the fingers.

There are some sparks though and some of that dull brown sand glitters. I see gold and silver, pink and blue, angry black and calm green.

What? I ask.

Time, he says. Placing his own ghostly hands around mine as we watch the sand overflow our hands. Not all dull but now littered with colours and light. You time. That is what you see. Memories. Good and bad. Your life was never dull. Do you not see the colours?

And I do. I see my sister’s children born and the growth of my brother. I see the rare smile of the man before me and my awkward body growing into a woman.

So, he says, what are you going to do?

It is then that I realise that this man, my father, had done me a disservice but the rest of my life is my own. Yes, he should never have trapped me. I should never have come here though. But that is not my father’s fault. If anything it was mine. I asked for guidance and then described my feelings. I let my uncle see my grief and his first thought was an asylum. I look past myself and to my hands. They are thinner than I remember. But before I came here I was able to eat what I cooked. I’m a good cook. My father used to be proud of the dishes I put in front of his friends and family.

“So nice,” my uncle jests. His laugh big and brash as that of a donkey calling out its discomfort at too much load. He slaps his belly and finishes the last piece of lamb. Daintily tapping the corner of his mouth with a napkin. I remember then being entranced about how effeminate his hands and actions were. How he plucked at his shirt sleeve removing fabled lint and how he talked and waved his hands in the air. A ballet that seemed wrong from a man who seemed too brash and loud.

My father’s tight smile and hesitant asking for the port. I know why. I will have to bring the Cockburn ’27 and not the peach wine that we liked of an evening. I loved that every sip would make me remember the autumn and the smell would take me back to the garden and our own tree with its perfect furry fruit. But I would get the brandy and then retire to the parlour in order to knit or sew. There I would imagine…

Me!

And me…

I am in shock. How long had my child and my man been with me? That meal had been many years ago… Must be close to ten. You never aged, I say to my child.

No… he looks scared. Don’t make me!

Never, I say.

So, my man asks. What now?

I look at the sand still spilling from my hand and realise that the colours are duller and the sparkle of gold had disappeared.

The time in the asylum, my father says.

I nod and open my hands, watching as the grains fall but never hit the ground.

“I think,” I say, and my voice is scratchy with ill-use. “That I need to leave.”

I am alone in the room and I can tell from the light that the day is almost over. I wonder what tortures the nurses are planning and then I laugh. The sound is weak and almost soundless. It doesn’t matter about them. I don’t suppose they will be back until they have seen to the others. I close my eyes then. I can do nothing to save them. I have not ever spoken to them but I have watched.

I feel discomfort. My limbs feel achy and heavy. I raise an arm and look at my hand. It is thin. Too thin. Next to me lies a paper. I never even realised anyone had sat next to me. Slowly I pull it toward me and squint at the print. My breath hitches in my throat. I walked into this asylum two years and one month ago. How has that time gone? I close my eyes and when I open them I see that the light has faded more.

We need to go, my man says.

I feel his urgency. If the nurses come back and see me moved then they will stop me. One thing I know is that there is little my body will take at the moment. I am so weak.

Placing both hands beside me I push up and stand. Everything screams and I gasp at the sensations. My legs feel like they will not support my weight. If only I could call in my man to help. I’d lean on his strength… But this is my path. I must walk it alone. And walk it well.

I take a step forward and wobble. A smile splits my lip. I am so thirsty. I feel blood drip inside my mouth and I place the tip of my tongue there. There is a sting and the taste of iron fills my mouth. I will say I have been ill. Every one will visit and let me convalesce. And if they don’t visit I will be fine. I’m not alone.

No you aren’t, my father says and I see his ghostly form walk ahead of me. Come, there is no one near.

Around him dances the figure of my child. My man stays next to me. His pace matching mine.

I hit the edge of the carpet, the reds faded and old. Once it would have glowed with sharp lines but now it looks like me, ill-used and ill-kept. I place a foot on the wooden floor and am surprised at the click of a heel. They clothed and shoed me. I’m not sure if what I wear is in fashion. I have a feeling that they have dressed me as younger. I used to be complimented in my appearance.

Shall we escape and then worry about looks? My father says.

The corner of my mouth twitches and I shuffle toward him. I understand I ought to stride, defiant and able, but my muscles scream at this simple way of moving forward. It takes so long. Only once do I try to look around and the wave of dizziness that hits me makes me stop. I somehow know that if I fall I may not be able to get back up again.

It comes as a shock when I find myself looking at the door knob. I close my eyes. How am I to haul open the door? Still I can’t give up.

If it is a well-designed door then it will open easily, my father says. I glance at him and there is a hopeful look on his face. I turn the handle and push. Nothing… two hands on the door and I shove with all the strength I have. My arms tremble at the exertion.

“It is a pull,” a voice says.

I know the voice and I close my eyes. I am caught. Turning I raise my head to look at the face of Alice.

“We never met,” she says. “I’m Alice Leach.”

I blink… That is the wrong name.

She is holding out a handkerchief. “Your lip is bleeding.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“Let me help,” she says and effortlessly guides me to one side and then pulls the door open.

“You were there then?” she asks.

“Sorry?”

“When me and Charles were talking.”

“Yes,” I say.

“My brother is a good man,” she sighs and holds the door so I can shuffle out. “But his blind want for money has meant that he forgets that people are, well, people. It is the same with my father and grandfather. Really there is no need for more money but…” She shrugs then and I feel at a loss. I shuffle past her and to the steps.

He is a man but is there any excuse? I glance at my father standing to one side head down cast and I straighten my back. I have been ruled by men all my life.

“Maybe women ought to rule their own lives,” I don’t realise that I say it out loud until I hear myself. My voice is quiet but it is more like how it used to sound.

Alice looks at me in surprise. “I think you may be right. Maybe once you are settled we ought to meet?”

Her face is hopeful and I nod. Picking one leg up I place my foot on the step and start to walk down.

“Do you know where you are going?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer. Luckily, I know where Mr Finchley lives. I have dined with him and his wife, she makes the nicest apple pie. The gravel crunches beneath my feet and a fat rain drop lands on my hand. I look at it and then I look up. The trees are turning a beautiful shade of orange, a few leaves have already fallen. The sky swirls around as if a liquid of greys and blues, the rain merely its tears. I smile and open my mouth, allowing the fresh rain to fall on my parched tongue. In my mind I see a bright gold pearl fall into my father’s hands, glowing against the dull time that the asylum has given me.

Kate Cleaver is am Anglo-Indian writer studying for a PhD with Swansea University. She is researching the lives of ordinary people who found themselves incarcerated in the Briton Ferry Insane Asylum, Vernon House. She has begun to create stories and has found that linking her stories to historical fact is a way to bring people from the past to life. In 2019 she was long-listed in the New Welsh Writers Award and has just had a memoir published by Parthian in ‘Just So You Know’.

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