October 16th, 1885
Royal Bethlem Hospital
Last night I was kept awake by the sound of a woman weeping; an awful, incessant, irritating sound that rose steadily in pitch and prolongation as the night wore on. Covering my head with the flimsy blanket in an effort to block out the noise proved useless. “It’s difficult enough to sleep in here, you fiends!” I cried, hammering at the handle-less door that confuses me so; the yellow, metal gateway separating me from my freedom. It does not even have a keyhole for me to peer through. I’m not entirely sure whether something worse than incarceration awaits me on the other side, but the most terrifying thing is not knowing.
I do know that I’m at the mercy of my captors if I can’t find a way to open it.
Damn them all, the bunch of goats. I roll over and try to get comfortable; a few strands of straw poking me in the eye.
My father must be frantic, and what of Beatrix? I hope they are both safe and well, and that they have not been abducted too. No doubt the police have been contacted by now, and I imagine they are searching through fields and rivers, looking for my body. Surely my kidnappers left clue’s that will lead them to me.
I rub my eyes in an attempt to clear them. I am glad that I am without a mirror; combined with the awful night-gown I am forced to wear, I imagine I resemble a lower-class prostitute. I can’t remember the last time my hair was brushed, my face washed, or my finger-nails filed. I haven’t had a warm bath in days. I could shed tears just thinking about it.
The darkness of my cell begins to fade. I get out of bed and move over to the window, standing on tip-toes, listening closely for any sounds the day may bring. I stay here for a long time, and it occurs to me that no church bells toll the hour. I must therefore be somewhere in the countryside as opposed to a city. I keep listening, my suspicions eventually confirmed with the rewarding crow of a singular cock somewhere in the distance. I have no way of telling the time in here; no clocks adorn the walls, and I wonder idly whether my captors might be kind enough to supply me with a stick. As I consider my plight and troubles with keeping time, the sound of my cell door opening disturbs the quiet. The same fat woman that appears every morning is hovering in the doorway, holding my breakfast tray.
Well, at least my captors don’t wish me to starve to death.
“What unsolicited advice do you have for me this morning?” I say, as she moves wordlessly into the room and bends to put the tray onto the floor. She normally comes armed with a prepared speech regarding my behavior: stop banging, stop shouting, stop crying. My breakfast unsurprisingly consists of a single bowl of thick, tasteless, glutinous porridge: a vast and sad difference to the perfectly golden, buttery toast to which I am accustomed.
“To be quieter at night?” It is a rhetorical question, and she doesn’t bother turning to look at me, busying herself with my breakfast.
I peer at her large behind. The fabric is stretched tight across her buttocks. If she bends forward any farther, she is liable to rip open the seams.
“Were you trying to kill someone last night?” I imagine all sorts of wonderful foods that she must eat in the mornings. Bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, sausages. All piled high on beautifully polished silver plates.
“No, Anne, I wasn’t.”
“I’m sorry, you ‘wasn’t’ what?”
“That’s the answer to your question.”
What is she talking about?
“You asked me if I was killing someone last night. I wasn’t.”
“You were,” I say, picking at my nails.
She’s such a dirty liar! I resist the childish urge to stamp my foot.
“You most certainly were.”
She stares at me.
“Look,” I say, pretending to be nice. Polite. “Can I have something other than this slop for breakfast?”
“Who do you think I am, Oliver Twist?”
She mutters under her breath and stands, turning as if to leave.
“May I have a stick to tell the time?” I ask quickly, not wishing to be thwarted so soon. She spins and looks at me as if I am mad.
“No, Anne. I dread to think what might occur if we gave our inmates sticks. Full out war, I expect. And how do you suppose a stick will help you tell the time?”
“Well, you place a stick in the ground, upright – normally easier if you have a bit of soil, which I don’t, but I’m fairly sure I can make it stand up somehow. In that porridge, most probably: for it is thick enough. Anyway, then, when the sun hits the stick, you look at the shadow as you would imagine a clock-face, and-“
“Anne, stop. The only times you need to know are that of mealtimes. In fact,” she says, sneering, “You don’t even need to know the times of those. You are to remain inside this room.” She pauses and looks about her, before bringing her face close to mine. Foul breath invades my nose as I stifle a heave. “Do you need to be somewhere?”
“Well, yes, I need to be at home.” I stutter, the stench of sewage blocking my voice.
“I will bring you your food for now. When, and if, you are eventually allowed out into the hospital freely, a bell will ring at the times of breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Backing away from me, she adds, “A stick…Lord have mercy!” She pulls open the door, for which I am semi-grateful, and semi-despondent, but I try to peek around her.
It’s no use.
She’s too fat.
Any human contact is better than none.
“I want to observe the body.” I entice her to stay.
“Oh, Anne…” her fat chins ripple as she closes the door. I am reminded of the red jelly Mrs Cook used to make for me when I was a child.
I don’t think I will ever eat it again.
I leap onto the floor and search the porridge with my fingers.
Dejected, I sit with my back to the wall and watch the sun rise in the sky through the window. I realize with a sudden clarity that I’ve seen that woman before, in the dream I had a few nights ago. What if it wasn’t a dream, maybe that’s how I got here? I ponder this for a while, but quickly tire of thinking. I’m bored of everything. The days in here are long and utterly pointless, and nothing holds my attention.
Eventually dawn turns to noon as the yellow fireball peaks at the uppermost part through the bars, and at once my stomach grumbles. It has learned that lunch will be delivered soon after the sun hits that particular spot in the glass. Yet the fact that my hunger pangs will soon be satisfied, is not enough to lift me from my abject misery. I have too many matters to mull over.
What do they want with me?
Do they intend to harm me?
Who are ‘they’?
And where is Beatrix? I miss her. Nobody else here speaks French and if I don’t practice, I may forget how to speak it. I can only hope that my confidante, my best friend, is outside these four walls, discussing my freedom with my kidnappers. It is lucky my captors are not French too, as Father would be absolutely hopeless in any sort of negotiation, and Beatrix would be of utmost importance.
There is a tickling sensation in my hands. Looking down, I find I am holding a pile of yellow paint chips. I must have spent my morning picking them off the walls as I watched the sun rise. I brush them away, scattering them onto the floor.
The fat woman in the apron returns right on time but she is not alone, she is accompanied by a younger, slimmer version of her foul self. They are wearing identical aprons, so no doubt this newcomer is a lying, thieving fiend too. This new one reminds me of a rat, she’s all teeth and bones and her eyes protrude from her face.
My, they do employ the most graceless women.
“I don’t suppose you speak French, do you?” I say, staring at the newcomer, hopefully. She shakes her head and remains silent, looking at the floor and twiddling her key-chain.
“Does she even speak English?”
“Be quiet,” the fat one replies. “Today we are going to take you for a walk. God knows, I shan’t be taking you alone. You’d like that, I imagine?” She nudges Rat-Face in the side, who startles before running over to me and grabbing me by an arm. I ignore the urge to smack her.
“I thought you said I couldn’t leave the room,” I say.
The fat-one snorts.
“Yes well, the doctor has decided he want’s you out for a while. Might drive you crazy if you stay in here for too long.” She slides a look at Rat-Face, sniggering, and this time it truly takes all of my self-restraint not to hurt her.
“Oh, well, how wonderful! Yes! I would love to go for a walk!” I smile innocently. Bastard, only letting me out for a ‘walk’ like a dog. If a fair opportunity should arise, I’ll give them both the slip, that would surprise the ‘good doctor’, wouldn’t it?
“Let’s get it over with then,” the fat-one says, grabbing hold of my other arm, and the two of them pull me out of my cell into the longest corridor imaginable.
One side is made almost in its entirety of large windows, as far I can see. Sunlight pours through them, shining stars and whorls up the walls. Wooden benches run along both sides of the passageway at regular intervals, and potted flowers bloom in the golden rays. It is incredible. The twitter of canaries co-mingles with doves cooing; the sounds emanating from ornamental bird-cages scattered everywhere on small wooden tables.
And people! There are other women! This fact delights me for a moment, and I almost jump with joy until I remember that I am a hostage and whoever my captors are, they must earn a fortune in ransom money if I am not the only one here. I am smiling and frowning at the same time; a stifling, rumbling pot of contradictory thoughts.
As I am flanked on either side by my two captors, escape is imminently futile. I have no choice but to follow wherever they lead me.
“Thieves, robbers.” I gripe quietly under my breath, loathe to make my feelings known in case I am marched firmly back to my cell, but unable to repress them completely. I stay inconspicuously alert for signs of an exit whilst letting myself be maneuvered down the corridor.
As we make our way through the hallway, we are forced to slow down by a woman curled up in a fetal position, moaning and crying on the ground. We stop just in front of her, and my fat captor nudges me in my side with a surprisingly knobbly-feeling elbow. The woman is laid at anothers feet; those of a handsome, fair-haired woman who is leaning forward, stroking her hair. She is dressed in the same apron as my captor, but she seems different.
She looks kind.
“Anne,” the fat-one says to me, “Do you see this woman?”
“A little hard to miss, seeing as if I take one more step I shall trip over her.” I say.
“This is your body.”
“The body you presumed had been left after the alleged murder last night,” she replies, grinning at me, and elbowing me again in my ribs, making me wince. “I told you nobody was killed.”
“Oh.” I am momentarily lost for words.
“This is another patient, just as you are a patient. Her name is Grace.”
“Miss Grace, could you kindly move your body off the floor so we may walk by?” I say, studying her. Grace stops sobbing and looks up at me. I smile, but this is wasting time. I need to find an exit.
“Don’t be cruel,” says her captor, who stops stroking her head for a moment to assess me. “This is Grace’s spot. She stays here all day, and she’s been here much longer than you have.”
“Her family hasn’t paid the ransom then yet?” I shake my head, sadly. I tut, and waggle my finger. “Shame on you. Shame on all of you. Cretins.” I am rewarded with a curious, questioning glance.
“She thinks she’s been kidnapped.” says my fat jailor.
“I have been kidnapped,” I say with assertion, nodding my head.
“Oh, this is the one, who you know…” says the nice looking jailor, her eyes flicking over me from head to toe.
“Yes,” says the fat-one.
“Pardon? I’m the one who what?” I’m confused.
“Nothing of your concern at present,” says Rat-Face. “Now come on, we can walk around Grace and continue on our way.” She starts tugging at my arm now, and the fat one pulls at the other arm in the other direction. We’re not going anywhere unless they pull me one way or the other, not two. Rat-Face gives up the fight and lets go of me.
“Are you taking me home?”
“No. I’m taking you for your salt and castor oil rub. You’re leaking. “
“Leaking where? What do you mean?”
“Forget it, Anne.”
“Well then…can I please have a stick?”
I sigh, and turn to the fair haired woman.
“Do you speak French?” I raise my eyebrows pleadingly as I am pulled past her.
That one word gives me the hope and courage I need to smile and let myself be dragged onwards.
“What is your name?”I ask, as my fat jailor leads me back along the corridor. We had a not-so-nice walk up and down the corridor, for an hour. Rat-Face scuttled off somewhere halfway through, possibly to find some cheese, or a dead body to chew upon.
“My name? Oh, Dear Lord-” and she starts laughing, wiping a tear away from under an eye with a tubby finger, skillfully keeping one hand firmly shackled on my upper arm. “My name is not the one that should be of importance to you: it is your own.”
“What?” We reach my cell door and she hands me over to a nearby woman, asking her to keep hold of me for a second whilst she unlocks it.
What does she think I am, a donkey? To be tethered to a lamp-post at will? The girl holding me is wearing a night-gown identical to my own. But it strikes very quickly that she worryingly bald; out-rightly denuded of hair, and two large, water-filled blisters bulge like over-sized bugs on her head. Her eyes are devoid of human emotion, and her eyelashes are gone too. I yelp, kick her in the shin and she lets go of me with a cry.
I start running down the corridor, the sunlight burning flashes in my vision as I pass the windows at the speed of a gazelle. The sound of a shrill whistle being blown momentarily startles me but I ignore it, keeping my momentum. I revel in the fact that my feet are taking me far away from here, leading me home. I’m free, I’m free, there’s no way that fat woman can possibly catch me. People jump out of my way, tables crash in front of me, a birdcage tips over, and as I look behind me, I see a dove soaring his own way to freedom. It is a funny sight and I giggle, just as a familiar cramp hits me in the side and I am bowled over by a man.
“Nurse Ruth!” He shouts in a loud and authoritative boom, and the buzz of activity I incited during the past few minutes stops. The dove flaps ineffectually against the glass in a fatalistic attempt at freedom.
I know just how he feels.
Just as someone catches him in a net, the man catches me and as we are both being led back to our cells in opposite directions, the bird’s little black eyes meet mine. He stops struggling for a moment; looking at me as if to say, What happened? We were almost there.
I know bird, I know. I’ll ask them to give you extra feed tonight for your trouble.
But it’s not really good enough is it? I hate you, he tells me.
I shrug. Qui onques rien n’enprist riens n’achieva, I say to him.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I repeat aloud, in English.
The man deposits me back outside of my cell, and the fat-one comments on how ‘mad’ I am, glaring at me as she holds the door open. The doctor tries to push me through, but I thrust back.
“They’re all mad, Nurse Ruth, or have you forgotten where you work today?”
“If only,” she harrumphs, practically farting out of her mouth.
“You never answered my question,” I say to her, my principled display of non-conformance with the doctor continuing as I advance through the doorway inch by excruciating inch.
“What question, Anne?” she says, idiotically.
“You could at least employ someone intelligent,” I say to the man, who I realize now is the ‘doctor’. “I asked her her name, about four minutes ago, and she’s already forgotten about it.”
He looks at me and offers me a small grin. For a second, less than a second, I feel a brief sense of solidarity. It quickly disappears when his fish eyes goggle at me.
“My name isn’t the question Anne, and my memory isn’t the one in dispute here: yours is. Lady Anne Stanbury.” she says, one half of her mouth turned upwards in a parody of a grin.
I could scream, I really could.
So I do.
And then, with lack of any other options, I sit on the floor in the doorway.
“Oh, how frustrated you people are making me! I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again: you have the wrong woman! My name is Lady Anne, yes, but my surname is Damsbridge, D-A-M-S-B-R-I-D-G-E. Just in case you’re having difficulty understanding that, I thought I should spell it out for you. But are you illiterate? I suppose you probably are. Again, Damsbridge. My father is the Earl of Damsbridge. The name of Stanbury is not mine, I have never heard of it, and I don’t even know anybody by that name!”
“Anne, her name is Ruth,” says the ‘doctor’. ‘Ruth’ farts again, and the doctor turns to her, saying,“Well? There is no harm in her knowing your name. She should, anyway, you’re supposed to be building a relationship with the patients. I’ve told you before.”
Ruth makes another noise, and I ask her whether she just farted out of her bottom or out of her mouth. “For when you talk, its nothing but a lot of smelly noise,” I tell her. “Your breath stinks. I noticed the other day, but decided to be polite about it and not say so.”
Her face turns a deep shade of pink.
“But…she’s so, so, stubborn! Doctor, she wont do hardly anything I tell her, she-”
“There is no such thing as a ‘stubborn’ insane person, Nurse Ruth. A man or woman bereft of reason is perfectly incapable of such. The only stubborn people of the world are sane, and to understand this is your job. Now, leave us alone for a minute. Seen as how I am here, I may as well utilize this opportunity to try to assess Anne again.”
“You shan’t be assessing anybody, least of all me. And I’m not bloody well insane,” I tell him as Ruth leaves, slamming the door behind her.
It has a certain ‘ring’ to it, or ‘roll’. A dumpy, lardy, big Fat-Ruth roll.
“Put out your tongue, please, Anne,” the ‘doctor’ says, approaching me slowly.
“I don’t want to, you beast,” I say. I’m really in trouble here.
“Anne. You must show me your tongue. I am a doctor.”
“My tongue is perfectly fine, you fiend. The only thing wrong with my tongue is that it is having to be used to talk with you,” I say, closing my mouth and pursing my lips together tightly.
He sighs and looks about him, before making his way over to my bed and sitting, putting his head in his hands.
“Yes, you may very well cast your eyes upon the ground, you despicable creature. How dare you lock a Lady in a cell, and pretend to be a doctor, in order to look upon her tongue?”
He moves to pull something out of his pocket, and I move quickly: far too fast for him to catch me.
“A-ha! You never imagined this did you, you wobbly eyed fish!” I am over the other side of the cell, facing him, brandishing my chamber-pot. I hold it above my head. “It is full, stinking, filthy, dirty full, and I shall throw it upon you unless you give me the key.”
His puffy-fish eyes wobble a little more, practically standing on stalks out of his face.
“I can smell them,” I say. My arms are starting to ache.
“Your eyes, you sea-creature.”
“Yes, your eyes. Your horrible, beady eyes. Fish eyes. I should imagine you’d like to cut mine out and make chairs out of them. I simply refuse to put my tongue out.”
He starts writing on a long, slender notepad, evidently that which he pulled out of his pocket before I retrieved my weapon.
“Can you stretch out your arms for me, Anne? Perhaps wiggle your fingers a little?”
Whilst I’m holding a chamber-pot? What a stupid question.
“No. I shan’t do anything you ask of me. Is that my ransom note?”
“No, Anne. It is-“
“It is, I know it is. Why else would you be writing upon a pad? I hope that the ink leaks out of your pen, all over your disgusting, cheap-smart clothes.”
He frowns, ignoring me, continuing to write, occasionally wiping an invisible piece of dust from his lap.
“Have you ever taken any drugs, Anne?”
I ignore the question.
“Give me the key.”
“No, Anne. I can’t give you the key.”
“Give it to me!” My voice rises, my throat starts to close up. “Give it to me right NOW, give it to me, give it to me! Give it to me, give it to me-“
The door opens with a bang, hitting itself upon the wall. Some yellow paint falls onto the floor in a pile. I want it.
“Doctor! What on earth is she up to now-“
I launch my chamber-pot.
Time stops for a moment.
The ‘doctor’ runs to Fat Ruth’s aid.
“Doctor! Ohhhhhhh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhhhhhhh!!!!”
I am in hysterics. The laugh simply won’t stop and it comes with force, pushing my voice up my windpipe and out into the air in dancing, happy tones. It forces me to bend over, such is it’s vigor and wait, something is shining next to my foot.
Before I can grab it, hands pull my arms behind me sharply, and I am thrown to the floor. My giggle stops in a huff sort of sound, and I can’t breathe right. The odor of faeces invades my nose.
“What, Doctor? What? You want me to let this little wretch hack us both to death?”
“She would not have harmed us, she is-“
“She would! Why is this lunatic not at Broadmoor?”
“Because of her father, Nurse Ruth…“
My father? Broadmoor? Lunatic?
The hands let go of me, and they, as well as I, are covered in my ilth.
“Get the gloves, Nurse Ruth,” he says, wiping at his trousers that now, I laugh, have something on them to be wiped off.
“How about the dress?”
“Yes, fetch the dress then. Right away.”
What are they talking about? The ‘doctor’ looks at me forlornly from a few feet away, blocking the door.
“I am sorry to have to do this, Anne,” he says, leaving, as Fat-Ruth comes back, holding a brown sack.
“Do what? What is that?”
“A restraint. For imbeciles like you,” Fat-Ruth says, and launches herself upon me with astonishing speed, making me wonder if earlier, she just watched me run for amusement.
“Let me go, let me go, let me GO!” I shout and I shout and I shout. My voice is heard by everyone but acknowledged by no-one.