(London, Highgate psychiatric ward, 1995.)
Rosa chokes on a wall of smoke as she enters the TV room. Through the jaundiced haze she makes out 8 or 9 men in plastic chairs, staring fixedly at a screen. Persil Automatic gets your whole wash white. You do wash clean and you do wash bright. She rests her back against the wall, close to the door. A thickset bald man whispers something to his skinny friend, who gets up from his seat and signals over to her to come and sit down.
“I’m grand,” she calls, but the young man makes insistent, energetic gestures towards his vacated seat.
“Okay, then. Thanks.” As she sits down, the bald guy offers her a cigarette, but two of the others shush him.
“No thanks,” she whispers. She badly wishes he’d offered her a cup of tea instead.
On the last visit she gave mum a flowery blue mug. Standard supermarket issue. Oh how lovely, Rosy Posy! It was relaxing when mum wasn’t hostile. Make sure you keep it safe in your room, though, she’d said. Cups were in short supply here. The cup before that one had got traded in for cigarettes. It must have been a high exchange rate. There are clearly a lot more cigarettes in circulation than cups. The nurse said the patients threw the cups out the window.
Her attention is diverted by a ruckus from the corridor outside. One of the voices belongs to mum. She gets up and goes to the door. A big woman, around mum’s age, slips past surprisingly quickly into the tv room, where Coronation street is starting up.
“Oh Rosy, thank god you’re here. Take me away from here. That woman, Nelly. She’s stark raving mad, comes right up behind my ear and screams. They’re all barmy here. Let’s go to the pub, shall we.”
“We can’t go the pub, you’re still under observation.”
“Observation, pobservation!” says mum. “Pubservation. That’s what I want. Pubservation. Come on. Let’s go to the pub — oh do let’s go. Please, please, pleeese.”
The slide into her childish voice makes Rosa cringe. Mum is also standing too close.
“Stop hovering, mum. I need space to breathe.” Mum takes an exaggerated step back. “Okay, let’s go get a cuppa tea then,” says Rosa quickly. “We can share your cup.”
“Sorry, Rosy Posy, I don’t have my cup anymore. I don’t know where it is.”
“You’re not serious, are you — I said I’d buy you cigarettes if that’s a problem. Alright, no cupper. I’m off.”
“You’re off. Ha ha. Yes, you are off. Stinking off! Whatcha whatcha. Ho ho. Ho Chi Min. Umpa umpa umpa pah. Stick it up your jumpapah. And Jack isn’t really dead and I got a letter from him and he still loves me. Jack understands me, doesn’t he. And I hit her so hard I broke her glasses. Naughty little girl. Bam! She’ll never forgive me for that, will she?”
Rosa is taken aback. Mum rarely mentions her manic phases let alone those childhood incidences. “Yes. I suppose he does.”
“I said I suppose Jack loves you.”
“Yes, of course he does,” says mum and assumes a slightly posh voice, “Now we must go down to visit the garden before you go.”
A flowerbed runs along the bottom of the high concrete walls. In the middle there is a small patch of green. They sit together on a bench near the door with Rosa’s bag between them, mum sporadically interrupting her agitated talk to take a drag on her cigarette or light the next one, Rosa saying ‘hm’ occasionally, soaking in the springtime sun, enjoying the truce and the fact she can leave whenever she wants.
On their way back up, a thin man is huddled into the rear corner of the lift. He is so unobtrusively dressed that Rosa involuntarily begins to study his garments. It’s as if he were trying to be invisible. If the corner of the lift were a recess he could retreat into it. It isn’t though, so he stares down at his feet. This seems to set something off in mum. Without warning she lies down on her back on the floor of the lift and starts hyper-ventilating, crossing herself over and again.
“Oh my God. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Blessus and save us. Our father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.” She doesn’t seem to know the rest of the prayer, which isn’t really surprising since she’s atheist, but what she lacks in knowledge she makes up for in fervour and improvises with a few lines from a Hail Mary.
The man who had been looking down at the floor raises his gaze and stares resolutely ahead. The lift stops. Mum picks herself up, dusts herself down and exits nonchalantly, performing a little whistle.
Rosa finds herself grinning. She is surprised by a brief flash of envy, wishes she weren’t so controlled. She links arms with Mum, says, “Holy Mary mother of god.”
Mum answers, “Picking potatoes is only a cod.” They laugh, childishly happy for a moment.
Back at the ward the nurse is ensconced in her armchair taking a half-relaxed break, drinking a coffee with one eye out for trouble. It seems she at least has managed to find a cup. The bald guy from the tv room passes by. He stops for a moment to stare at Rosa’s breasts. “You should be careful,” he says. “I got put in here for walking around like that.”
In the middle of their goodbyes, prolonged by mum’s renewed calls for pubservation, Rosa does a double-take like in the Tom and Jerry cartoons — the nurse is drinking her coffee from mum’s mug. Rosa starts to say something but stops. She decides to bring two new cups for the next visit.
Jane S Conroy writes in Berlin, Germany. She has a soft spot for this story even though it’s quite an old one (2014).
October 10th is World Mental Health Day.
1 in 4 people around the world will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives.