So I’m at this meeting, with my sister, in the mental ward. It’s a small room, down the far end by the door we can never get out of afterwards (or fast enough) and which someone always has to come along with a plastic key on a chain to overrule. The room is obviously used for some other purpose some of the time. In one corner, on a surgical bed, sits a young woman who never does introduce herself: maybe a student; maybe even a patient. Then there is a Very Large Nurse (male), a Social Worker with a kindly expression and a forgettable name, wearing wrinkled leggings and an unfortunate dress, plus Mum’s Psychiatrist, tapping at her computer, trying to find her case notes.
Mum doesn’t know we’re here. We spot her in the day room when we are signing in, eating a yoghurt. She is very focussed on the yoghurt. After a while she gets up and hobbles across in front of the giant TV (most of the audience is asleep in any case) to bin the empty pot. How bent-over she is, now. She was always so fit, so upright. She still doesn’t see us, and by unspoken agreement we hide. Easier if she doesn’t attend this meeting, in particular – and afterwards there will be no time for the usual silent hour in the activities room, writing notes for her, which she looks at, frowns and pushes back, not meeting our eyes.
So they start talking about her behaviour prior to admission. ‘The carers mentioned her lying on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard? Saying she might as well be dead?’
‘She often says that,’ I say. ‘She’s unhappy.’
‘But lying on the floor, with her head…?’
‘Oh, that’ll be the Voices. They talk to her through the cupboards, you see. And the lying on the floor, that’s because they’re much easier to hear from lower down…’
In all these years I have never learned to keep my mouth shut. Now the whole room – including my younger sister – swivels in my direction and treats me to that ‘Obviously runs in the family’ look.
The problem is twofold. Partly it’s this – when someone believes in their delusions there is no point whatsoever in saying to them, look here, you old Daftie, this just isn’t logical. If my mother had access to logic she wouldn’t be believing – as she did before admission – that Gypsies had taken up residence in the house to the left of her and Gangsters in the house to the right, and that these two groups conducted conversations with her, and between themselves, out in the blackness of the garden, behind drawn curtains, in the middle of the night. Pointless to laugh and tell her that They couldn’t possibly be forbidding her to enter her bathroom and her bedroom. It was a fact: They had taken over that part of the house, and now these rooms no longer existed.
For years Mum has been updating me on the increasingly menacing activities of her Voices. They were digging under the foundations of the house at one point. They were going to make a film. They planned to move the house several feet from its current foundations. They had taken over all the houses round here. They had big plans. To begin with they sang, or talked amongst themselves. What they said didn’t make much sense and Mum and I could agree that they weren’t real, just a bit of a nuisance, some sort of interference. But as her dementia deepened something seemed to tip inside her head. The voices were real, she could hear them quite clearly even at a distance, in spite of having almost no natural hearing, and now they were talking about her. They were discussing their plans for what they now firmly regarded as their property. They were telling her she was no longer permitted…
But you just get used to it. As I drove over to visit her of a Sunday I would be trying to anticipate the latest instalment – it got to be a bit like following The Archers – but They often managed to surprise me all the same. I began to wonder what They looked like, my fellow-visitors, imagine what They sounded like. How many of them were there, exactly? Did They also watch me, I wondered.
They certainly discussed me. We were forced to leave our favourite café rather sharpish one Sunday, because They were saying she shouldn’t have taken me there. My presence was not required. ‘Don’t bring her in here again,’ They instructed.
‘It’s all right,’ Mum assured the uncomprehending woman behind the till (rather sniffily) ‘This is the last time we will be Darkening your Doormat.’ And she was right. Far too embarrassing ever to go back. I quite liked that café, too. The scrambled egg was nasty, mind you: rubbery; straight out of some industrial-sized can of powdered egg.
After a while – it’s not that you believe in these ghostly presences, but they become almost as much of a fact to you as they are to the other person. It’s like with children – accept their invisible friends and you can go on communicating. You thin the already thin veil that separates sane from mad. It’s surprisingly easy; in fact for a writer it’s frighteningly easy. We spend so much of our time in imaginary worlds in any case. I could write – did write, once – a longish short story entitled Just Dust, now lost. It was about a community or family living on a distant planet. The atmosphere was poisonous and they lived under a vast plastic dome. But in at the seams, along the edges, into the cracks and interstices of their safe little world, was blowing… red dust. At first they hardly noticed it accumulating in little, and then bigger, heaps. Then they told themselves it was nothing. Nothing at all, really.
At no time, whilst writing that story, did my conscious knock upon the door of my subconscious and inform it that this planet with its sinister red dust wasn’t real or that these people didn’t exist, or that I was making it up. I suspended disbelief. To write the story I had to do that, just as a reader has to do that when they read. How many women, when they/Elizabeth Bennet first catch sight of the devastating Mr Darcy on the far side of the ballroom, immediately remind themselves – he isn’t real – he’s no more than words on paper – he’s just some frustrated eighteenth century spinster’s fantasy.
I ‘believed’ in that cast of many floating around my mother’s head. We all floated around together, for a while. That was the way I stayed in touch with her. She left my world so I followed across into hers. It was all I could do. And now, foolishly, insanely, I miss Them. She’s been put on some antipsychotic drug. She’s still got dementia, of course, but no longer mentions the Voices. She’s calmer now; the paranoia’s subsided and it’s better for her. But now there’s nothing left to talk about, no scrap of common ground remaining.
And sometimes I find myself wondering what they’re up to nowadays, those Gypsies, those next-door Rascals. Have They finished digging up the foundations, or did They hit some sort of snag? Maybe They stumbled upon dinosaur bones or Roman coins. Did They succeed in relocating the house several feet to the left? What about that film They were planning to make? Might They be wandering round her house even now, in that unheated, undusted, unoccupied emptiness, cameras whirring, discussing filmic technicalities – panning and scanning, fading to black?