The ward’s on an upper floor, down a long, long corridor with a key pad on the door and a thing you have to announce yourself through, and then they come and get you, very slowly. They had cut and varnished Mum’s fingernails. “To stop me scratching anyone,” she confided. It was a horrible shade of pink – exactly the colour she wouldn’t have chosen in her fanatical manicuring days. She used to spend hours, I remember, with one of those little kits, filing, buffing, pushing back the cuticles, applying layer after layer of colour. She was very proud of having finally stopped biting her nails, around the age of 40.
Afterwards I wondered why they did that – was it, as they might have you believe, to make the sectioned person feel good about themselves? Or did the nail-varnish have a more sinister purpose? (Paranoia must run in the family.) Supposing an enterprising female patient did manage to slip past the phalanx of gigantic male and female nurses on the internal reception desk , would she not be instantly recognisable, thanks to the puce nail-varnish? My mother has already tried all the doors, she informs me. None of them open. She is now considering the windows or “getting through the glass”. If she did somehow manage to get out, could she lose herself in the teeming corridors of this huge hospital? Or would the guards go around looking for a little old lady in grubby trainers and a grown-out perm, with unlikely puce-coloured nail-varnish? No woman would have selected that colour.
Supposing – just supposing – the puce nail-varnish contains something secret, like a liquid microchip or smart… nail-water? Better still, because then they just walk about with their mental ward nail-varnish detector set to “scan”. Sooner or later she sets it off and they home in on her from all directions. Nabbed you, you little blighter.
At least she’s clean now, and wearing something other than the Famous Blue Jumper. They won’t allow belts, so she has threaded a pink dressing-gown cord through the loops on her jeans to keep them up. “I don’t like the new tee shirts you bought me,” she remarks. “Too skimpy.” She is carrying round a hessian bag – the one we were secretly stuffing clothes into in her bedroom on Tuesday night just before the ambulance arrived. The one she walked in and discovered, and then realised, and then started talking very, very loud and very fast. Cajoling. Bargaining. I couldn’t help thinking that rogue computer, HAL, in 2001, being dismantled circuit by circuit by the man in the space suit called Dave – the beginning bit, before it got on to singing Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer dooooo….. One of the scariest, and saddest, movie scenes ever.
She has some of her clothes in the bag now. She is taking them out, holding them up to the light, folding them as if packing for her holidays, putting them back in. The white bear I brought her (Best Mum in pink letters – probably left over stock from Mother’s Day) is added to the “in and out” sequence rather than dropped on the floor or flung across the room, which probably means she likes it. She knows I’m one of her daughters but doesn’t recall my name.
“Do you know where you are, Mum?” I ask her. I write down the name of the hospital. She looks at me blankly, scanning my face rather than scrawled letters on a page torn from a notebook; reading me. Emotions – she’s not stopped picking up on those. Mum Radar – you could never get away with anything. “When I get through the glass,” she says, “when I get through the glass…”
“They all belong to some religion, you know, those nurses. Not the one in the red but the ones with the blue things hanging round their necks. I’ve been told they cut off your ears if you’re bad. They even kill people.”
Outside the plate glass windows you can see the hospital entrance and the yellow car-park barrier rising and falling as cars come through; narrow streets of Edwardian terraces beyond. I thought she might have worked it out from this view, since this is where my father died, more or less. They moved him somewhere else for his last couple of days. We used to come and visit him here – Mum, my godmother and I. Now my godmother and I have come to visit Mum. “Is your car parked out there?” she asks, hopefully.
“I’d fit in the back seat…”