15. Here Be Dragons
They wore white dresses and starched aprons and caps. They made you take strange tablets and wired you up to machines that made you scream and writhe like you were possessed whilst those white clothed deathly angels held you down. Ivy remembered the grip of their hands around her wrists whilst her hands contorted and twisted as she tried to fight them off. They always won. Held down and wired up you were helpless and just had to wait for the doctor to put the machine on and shock you into unconsciousness.
Sometimes you were given basic tasks – but if you had never had to do anything like them in your life, before this hell, then you struggled. They talked to you like a child – led you round like a baby.
It was hell. Of that Ivy was certain. She had friends; of course, she was not the only one in there for an illicit love and a bastard child. There was Vera who couldn’t talk after they shaved off half her brain – lobotomy it was called – there was Ellen who had had a fling with an American GI called Ralph. There was Jean who tried to look on the bright side and there was Pam who would never look on the bright side again since they made sure she could never have another baby.
Sometimes they got visitors. Her mother came once. God knows, she never came again. She sat opposite Ivy with tears glistening in her eyes. Ivy couldn’t say anything, there was nothing to say. Her mother spoke about the baby, a strong young boy, now. How quickly the time passed! It slipped through your fingers here and merged into one long string of immeasurable time. Her mother assured her the baby was safe, that since Ivy’s father had died, the child had come to live with his grandmother and she would bring him to see Ivy soon. Soon, she promised. Ivy didn’t see her son until he was nearly thirty-five with a family of his own.
She remembered how her mother spoke to her as if she were a child, as if the daughter she had put in the asylum had descended into childishness and idiocy. By that time the place was already stamping Ivy. She was thinner and paler, her hair had lost its shine and she smelt like a hospital, her eyes were lifeless and circled with darkness. And her mother was crying.
‘Goodness, my darling, if it’s the last thing I do I’ll get you out of here.’
But, of course, she didn’t. Who would want to broadcast the fact that their daughter was a degenerate?
They were one and the same.
Ivy doubted her mother had even tried to seal her release, because Ivy had already brought enough shame on the family. Her mother blended into the mists of a time long ago –her face only half remembered her name uneven on Ivy’s tongue. And her mother was crying.
And after that – your public viewing – they locked you back up in your cage with the other zoo animals.
In her dream – the dream – Ivy floated down those corridors again. Tall, municipal corridors painted white from floor to ceiling. But now there was debris littering the floors. Paper, plaster – candlestick maker. Great black wounds were scorched into the ceiling were a fire had taken hold. The black was weird in all the whiteness. The paint was chipped and peeling, the glass in the doors was smashed. She could see the rafters, the skeleton of the place and all the stories that whispered out of it. Thousands upon thousands of voices clamouring to be heard in Ivy’s head.
And then there was the nurse. White dress, white apron, white cap, white face, black hair. Standing at the end of the corridor with her arms across her chest. And the voices stopped clamouring and started screaming. And Ivy was screaming too.
And then she woke up. The darkness hit her like a hammer. Like the little tablets they made you swallow. Her frenzied breathing bit into the silent night. But no one came. No one ever came.
16. Ivy’s Story
Susan had lapsed into song as she stood over the washing up in the kitchen the next morning. Anya picked listlessly at a bowl of cereal. The door creaked, Gelert looked up from his bed and threw himself across the room, tail waving. Arden stepped through the door; he fondled the dog’s ear and walked silently to the table, sinking into a chair. Susan exchanged a look with Anya, who bent her head directly over her breakfast, before putting a cup of coffee in front of him.
No one spoke. Gelert panted at his master’s side.
‘It’s a fine day again,’ Arden said,
Anya looked up, puzzled. Such a mundane comment yet it held such menace coming from his lips.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
Susan started to sing again as she went out into the utility room to see to the ironing.
‘I am going to drive down to Thetford Forest; I would like it if you came too. There’s someone I wish you to meet.’
‘Is that an order?’ she retorted icily,
He studied her and took a long slug of his coffee. Anya pushed away her breakfast plate with rising ire.
‘Yes,’ he said, putting down his mug again, unhurriedly, ‘it is. I’m leaving at nine.’
With that he stood and left the room, Gelert trotting at his side. Anya threw her spoon after him; it bounced off the closing door and clattered on to the floor.
She decided not to go. Barricaded herself, instead, into her room. Nine ‘o’ clock approached and passed without event. Quarter past nine, half past nine ticked round on the clock and still nothing. As the grandfather clock downstairs in the hall began to chime ten, Anya’s curiosity could not be stilled and she flew from the room, down the stairs and into the hall.
He was throwing a rucksack onto his back, perceiving Anya, struck dumb on the bottom step he smiled. Susan emerged from the kitchen with two paper bags,
‘There’s your lunch, yours too Anya, I did you chicken sandwiches, is that all right?’
‘I’m not going,’ Anya said, ‘I don’t want to. You said you were going at nine.’
‘Did I?’ he said absently, ‘I meant ten. Thank you Susan, we’ll be back for dinner, come along Anneke.’
What could she say? To fight and be obstinate was to make herself a fool in front of Susan. To submit was to be defeated. Arden raised an eyebrow. To be dragged across the hallway and into the car like a child in a temper would be the ultimate embarrassment and they both knew it. Grudgingly, with her jaw set, Anya crossed the hallway and went out to the car, glinting red in the sunlight. She slipped into the passenger seat and turned her face from him, arms crossed over her chest.
Thus they spent the journey. Nothing was said for there was nothing to say. They turned eventually down a winding lane. The sun shot tangled beams through the trunks of the pine trees. All of a sudden, they turned a bend and a white house of immense proportions rushed up to greet them. Arden turned into the gravelled car park and stopped the car. They sat a time in the silence made by the death of the roar from the car’s engine. Birdsong filtered out of the trees and people’s voices wafted through the still summer air.
Arden got out, fished his rucksack from the backseat and went round to open Anya’s door. Reluctantly, she stepped out onto the gravel and followed behind him into the shady seclusion of the house. She found herself at a reception desk. Arden was speaking softly with the woman on duty. Apprehension began to climb in Anya’s stomach. After an age he stepped away from the desk, a nurse emerged from a doorway with a ready smile for him they fell to talking like old friends. He turned round and beckoned Anya over,
‘This is Anya, a friend of mine; I thought Ivy would like to meet her,’
The nurse smiled and held out a hand,
‘I’m Freda, pleased to meet you.’
Anya shook the hand with a smile. Freda turned back to Arden and they began to walk purposefully through the building,
‘I’m afraid it’s another bad day again, she was calling out for you last night and today she wouldn’t eat breakfast and didn’t want to come down to be with everyone so she’s been alone up there all morning. She won’t have anyone with her.’
Arden listened with a crumpled brow and tired eyes. They went up a flight of stairs and along countless corridors with numbered doors leading off them. Anya began to lag behind but then Freda and Arden stopped at a door and Freda knocked before pushing the door open, her tone when she spoke was chirpy and bright.
‘Ivy, there’s a visitor here for you.’
Arden stepped through the door with a thank you for Freda and gestured for Anya to come forward. Freda smiled warmly again and disappeared off down the corridor. Arden had disappeared into the room and Anya heard the lilt of his voice against the crackle of an older, similarly soft voice.
She gained the doorway and stopped. What was before her was a scene of such intimate devotion that she felt she must be trespassing. Arden’s bag lay despondent on the bed in the centre of the room. Arden himself had slumped onto the floor next to an old chair. In the chair sat a small, wizened woman who seemed as if she must be as old as the world. Her eyes were ringed and tired, her skin paper thin. But on her lips, her drained, thin lips, was a smile that still held the twinkle and vivacity of a once young and beautiful girl. Arden’s smile matched hers. He held her hands tightly in his own and whispered to her phrases so tender that Anya thought maybe this wasn’t Arden at all.
He looked up and beckoned to her,
‘Ivy, I have a visitor for you, this is Anya,’
The old woman looked up with a radiant smile; Arden too looked up, more relaxed than Anya had ever seen him. The woman peeped up at Anya with an impish grin, which she then turned on Arden,
‘Is this your young lady then?’ she asked with mischief bubbling through her tone,
Arden laughed brightly,
‘No, no, she’s not. She’s just a – friend,’ he finished with a questioning glance at Anya, who looked away,
‘I used to be young and pretty like you once,’ Ivy smiled, ‘I bet you can’t imagine that, can you?’
‘Anya,’ Arden continued with a laugh, ‘this is Ivy Arden, my grandmother.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ the woman said softly, ‘grandmother, ha! It makes me sound so old.’
‘Well you don’t look a day over twenty,’ Arden said, his eyes crinkling with a smile.
‘Oh you stop your cod,’ Ivy returned with a twinkle, ‘I’m nearly eighty six I’ll have you know. Eighty six years,’ she continued wistfully, ‘and most of that I’ve been locked up.’
The levity in Ivy’s tone had disappeared completely. Anya’s face crumpled in puzzlement, Arden’s fingers tightened round the old woman’s skeletal hands,
‘Not in prison,’ Ivy said quickly, speaking only to her grandson, a light of worried urgency in her eyes ‘nothing like that, not for a crime more than loving. Because I loved...’ she closed her eyes, ‘not wisely but to well.’
‘That’s from Othello, isn’t it?’ Anya asked shakily,
Ivy’s eyes opened and she looked at Anya as if seeing her for the first time but after a moment, she nodded,
‘I went t see it in London with my mother when I was a little girl. I forget where it was on but we did see it. I wore a blue silk dress, proper silk that whispered round my legs. Oh I loved that dress! I remember twirling and twirling in front of my mirror to make the skirt fan out. And of course we studied Shakespeare at school,’ she continued suddenly, ‘I’ve not seen any Shakespeare since I was eighteen. Still, they used to have evenings when we listened to music and sometimes we were even allowed to dance. I know all the Vera Lynn songs,’
You’ll get no promotion this side of the ocean...
Ivy was smiling as the old song wound from her lips,
‘I used to love that one and We’ll Meet Again; of course, yes I used to love all those songs. Ellen and Jean and I used to sing them together. ’
‘Were they your sisters?’ Anya probed, sinking down on the bed and ignoring Arden’s penetrating gaze.
‘No, though we could have been, we knew each other’s every secret.’ Ivy’s face changed, pain tore across it and she turned her suddenly fearful eyes on her grandson,
‘They aren’t going to put me back there?’ she whispered to him
Arden shook his head, squeezing her hands gently. The room was bare, no photographs on the bedside table, no flowers. Ivy sat in lonely majesty in the chair by the window, Felix Arden at her feet, holding her small, claw like hands. Ivy was whispering through the stillness of the room. Anya caught a few of the words but not all.
‘Ellen died. Jean died. Vera died. Pam died. Ellen died. Jean died. Vera died. Pam died. Ellen twisted a bed sheet round her neck. The doctors got Jean. Vera started to cough blood. Pam just gave up. I’m the only one left. Ellen died. Jean died. Vera died. Pam died. Felix, I’m the only one alive now, all my friends are dead,’ tears stood out on her eyelashes, ‘they’re all dead.’
‘Should I get someone?’ Anya whispered to Arden, aghast.
Arden shook his head,
‘No, wait outside a moment please.’
She did as she was told without argument. As she reached the door she turned, Arden had gathered the old woman into his arms and she was clinging to him desperately,
‘Don’t let them put me back, I can’t go back.’
Arden rocked her gently back and forth, shushing her like one would a frightened child. Anya slipped into the corridor but left the door ajar.
‘They used to do awful things to us, Felix. They put electricity through our heads, it hurts. It still hurts. Felix, don’t put me back there.’
‘Shush, shush, it’s all right, no one is going to put you back there. Not ever, not now, shush.’
Anya’s blood had frozen solid as she listened, an irrepressible sickness was rising in her and the walls seemed to be closing in. She ran. She kept running until she burst out into the grounds to sink thankfully onto a bench, dropping her head into her hands and taking great gasps of air.
Thus, Arden found her later and sauntered across to her with his jacket draped over his shoulder. He sat down, keeping a conservative distance between them.
‘I have persuaded my grandmother to eat her lunch, we’ll go and say goodbye to her afterwards and then head back. Are you all right?’
Anya looked up at him, still blanched,
‘What happened to her?’
‘When she was eighteen she met a very handsome young soldier and they fell in love but he was from a working family in the north and she from a very powerful, rich family who forbade her to see him. But Ivy went on seeing him and in 1944 gave birth to his illegitimate child, my father, whilst he was away fighting in France. So her family had her committed to a lunatic asylum as a moral defective, better that than she brought shame on the entire family, I suppose was their reasoning.’
‘Did the soldier ever come back for her?’ Anya asked,
‘Oh yes, but they paid him off and threatened to kill him.’
Anya sat very still,
‘She’s been locked up in one way or another for eighty six years, Anya, can you imagine it?’
Anya couldn’t, nor did she want to. Arden was staring into the middle distance, unseeing, his eyes focused on an inside thought,
They went back into the nursing home only to say goodbye to Ivy. She smiled at them from her chair with the same untroubled smile with which she had greeted them. Arden embraced her warmly, Anya shook her hand. Ivy scrutinised her seriously,
‘Come here, child, let me give you some good advice.’
Anya lent closer to the little old woman, she smelled of lavender. Ivy put her lips to Anya’s ear and whispered something that Arden, standing a little way off, failed to catch. Anya drew back, looking perplexed but Ivy simply smiled and patted her hand. She waved goodbye to them and turned back to the window with a song on her lips.
‘She’s not always like that,’ Arden said as they walked back across the car park, ‘she has good days and bad days. There are some times that she is just her normal self but she goes through phases when she has nightmares and gets depressed. She’s had an awful life so it’s hardly surprising.’
They walked in silence for a time.
‘What did she say to you?’ Arden questioned suddenly.
Anya, arms folded, shook her head,
Arden did not press her further. They climbed into the car and drove away without another glance back but as they wove along the lonely country roads on the way home, Arden’s voice rose like honey over the roar of the engine.
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where don’t know when...