Visiting Hour at Horkum Asylum, Nr. Whitby
She refers to this place as ‘the notorious’ Horkum Asylum, as if that is its full name. The whole time she is here she is on edge. She’s just waiting for one of the crazed in-mates to dash out of the shadows and do something unspeakable to her.
So I suppose I should be glad that she comes all this way to see me.
We take walks in the snowy grounds, which are quite pretty. There are statues of fabulous creatures, but it’s impossible to tell what they are under the crust of everlasting snow. We totter down the frozen paths and through the terraced gardens and walk the perimeter of the barbed wire fences.
‘You don’t belong in a place like this,’ says my mysterious friend, Effie, almost each time she comes to visit. ‘It’s obvious that you aren’t crackers and that you’re in possession of all your marbles.’
‘Is it?’ I smile at her, glad to hear it.
‘Oh yes,’ she nods, peering up into my face earnestly. ‘You’re still the same Brenda. I’d stake my life on it.’ She sighs heavily, letting out a great plume of icy breath. ‘Though we have both changed a great deal. How could we not be changed by everything we’ve experienced?’ She falls silent for a bit and we trudge through the snow in companionable quiet. I love the crisp sound of our feet in the snow. ‘In my case, of course, all the changes were for the better,’ Effie says, a little simperingly. ‘I marvel that you haven’t commented on the fact of my changes, Brenda. Aren’t you amazed?’
I play along. ‘Oh yes, yes indeed. Very amazed.’ I smiled blandly and a look of crossness shoots across her thin face.
‘Look at me!’ she whispers. ‘Don’t you think it odd? I’ve… somehow gone and… rejuvenated myself. I must have dropped about thirty years. And all just by jumping into this world. Just by hopping through that portal. Why, if word got out about the strange properties of the portals then everyone would start jumping through, I’m sure of it. All those old women we know at home. They’d be going mad. You’d never be able to stop them jumping through.’
Now she’s rambling on, and I’ve no idea what she means. She looks about seventy to me, so what on earth did she look like before? She seems very pleased with herself.
I ask her, ‘And what about me? Am I younger, too?’
She purses her lips, and lines show on her face. ‘Well, erm, not quite. Though recent experiences have changed you a little bit. It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly, Brenda. But… if I’m honest… you seem even taller. Even broader in the beam. You’re twice the size of me now.’
Oh. So I’m bigger than I was before. I must take her word for it. This woman seems to know all about who I was before, and what I was like. I admit that I do like the sound of being big and strong and tall. It makes me feel braver, and that’s something I believe I am going to have to be.
We sit on a stone bench, once Effie has cleared it of snow. She huddles in her furry cape and we both stare at the view of the tall fences, the woods and the moors beyond.
‘I’m just glad we’re still alive,’ Effie says. ‘After everything we’ve been through. All the changes might be for the better, or they might have been a heck of a lot worse, but I’m just glad that we’re all in one piece.’ She turns to me with a determined expression. ‘And I’m going to get you out of here, ducky. Don’t you ever doubt that. You’re coming home, to Whitby. With me.’
That night I dream about Whitby.
That’s what I assume it is, anyway. The place that Effie says I belong to. I get a strange, confusing blur of images and impressions rushing through my head. I’m sitting in a cosy room, with a small window overlooking a storm-lashed town. I can hear the sea, somewhere not too far away. An endlessly restless noise. The fire crackles in the grate and I’m sipping a very sweet and delicious drink from a tiny glass. The woman called Effie is sitting across the room from me, but goodness – she looks ancient. She’s like a wizened old hag sitting there.
She’s talking about something or other. Cryptic stuff. But I’m used to not being able to follow her these days. It sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. Something about a woman called Sheila and a malign deity known as… Goomba. Effie is talking inbetween sips of sherry… (yes! That’s what the drink is called!) and she’s making plans. Plans of action, of attack. We’re involved in a kind of… yes, adventure. That’s the word. The two of us are talking like the whole world is depending on our working together to foil some evil kind of menace.
I have these dreams several nights on the trot. They are populated by terrifying beings. Dark-eyed blood-suckers and the spirits of flesh-eating sirens. They’re all crowding in for my attention, along with other, friendlier faces. Concerned faces. Calling my name, peering into my eyes.
I wake up in cold sweats. Calling out, some nights. My bellowing hullaballoos echo down the stone corridors of Horkum Asylum. I could almost feel ashamed of waking everyone up in the dead of night and bringing the guards running. They unlock my door and come dashing in. They slap me awake. They inject me with something to bring my heart rate down and the visions in my head go still.
Mostly, they go still. Some are still frozen on my mind’s eye.
I do see some terrible things when they leave me lying here on my own.
Some nights they’ve even strapped me to my cot so I don’t thrash about so much. I think they’re scared that, possessed by my nocturnal visions, I’ll go rampant and break down the door. Sometimes I feel strong enough to do that. I could run amok in this place. Go on a rampage in my starched nightgown. I could crack skulls together and kick down the doors that keep me trapped in this place. Sometimes the blood courses so thickly through my veins and it fizzes in my temples with diabolical urgency and I feel like I could do anything.
I really need to calm down.
It’s no good for me to get too worked up.
I might do myself a proper mischief. Getting all in a tizz like that, I could burst my heart. I could pop all the blood vessels that supply my brain. I could drop dead in an instant.
I must be more careful and not lose my rag. I must try not to let my dreams send me doo-lally. It’s all for my own good.
That’s what my personal physician says, anyhow.
And he’s a very caring, considerate man. He has a lovely, solicitous, considerate, bedside manner. Such a cultivated voice. Almost a purr. He comes to see me most mornings, very early and puts on a gentle tone. He admonishes me softly.
‘Ah, Brenda. What have you been dreaming about now? What have you been up to?’
Sometimes there are broken chairs and other bits of rough furniture lying about the cell. Smithereens. Smashed up bits. Everything that came to hand during my nighttime tantrum. Sometimes the leather straps from the bed have been snapped straight through.
‘You can’t carry on getting yourself all upset like this, my dear.’ He sighs heavily and I stare up at him from my bed, where I lie exhausted after all the ructions. I lie there admiring his shiny black hair and his spotless complexion. His immaculate manners. ‘How are we ever going to calm that savage breast of yours, eh?’ And he smiles at me winningly.
‘I don’t know,’ I mumble. ‘I just wish I could be calmer. I wish I could be content. It’s just… the dreams. The dreams get me all stirred up again.’
He glances sharply at his clipboard and makes a swift note with his silver pencil. ‘Your dreams seem to be at their most potent on nights following visits made by your friend. Effryggia Jacobs. Have you realized this?’
I think for a moment or two. ‘I suppose… I suppose that’s right…’
He taps his pencil against his perfectly white teeth. ‘In that case, I think we should think very seriously about whether her visits ought not to be discouraged in future. This person seems to be undermining your recovery, Brenda. She is spoiling your chances of ever being happy.’
My physician stands up to go.
‘Do you think so?’ I ask him, wishing he could stay longer. But he has his rounds to do. He has all the loonies here to consider. I have already taken up too much of his precious time.
‘Oh yes,’ he says, frowning. ‘I think Effie is doing you more harm than good, Brenda. Perhaps we should put a stop to her.’
Then he’s turning on his heel and waving me goodbye. His attendant nurses go with him. He always has about five with him. They’re different to the regular nursing staff. Queer, short women who don’t speak English.
‘T-thank you,’ I call after him. ‘Thank you, Doctor Danby.’