DAY 2: Another awesome writing day. Totally hit the word-count limit. Hubby and family being super supportive. Love the way that the novel is going although slightly worried that it is very depressing. The lives of Malachi and Opehelia are so complex. Was very hard writing about Ophelia's experiences of her mother's mental health. There are moments in the chapter that are very close to events and experiences that I experienced at about the same age. Cathartic but hard going. It will be interesting to see how 'real' people who have no experience of mental health illness in the family find it - because truly, so much of it sounds completely far-fetched when it's written down, especially the reactions that Ophelia has ... including the black humour. I've always said that if we hadn't held onto an element of humour about my father's crippling mental health issues, then we would have been completely sucked under. Amazing how humour is a soul saver.
Ophelia and Malachi's relationship is fascinating me. I can't wait to keep writing them out.
Chapter 2 copyright Katie M John 2012 (No part of this may be copied or reproduced without author's consent - Thank you)
I was just fourteen when I first stepped into a psychiatric ward. If I wasn’t slightly mad before I did so, I certainly was by the time I left. I had gone to visit my mother. It would be the first of many visits. I thought that maybe time would create a form of immunity to the human suffering, the degradation, the desperation. I was wrong. Rather than learning to cope with the sights, and worse still the sounds, of the psychiatric ward, I found each visit eroded a little more of the spirit. It is total lunacy to send anybody suffering from depression to a psych ward - take it from me, they are the most depressing places on earth.
For a long time I didn’t tell a soul about my mother’s incarceration. I hid it, which was easier than you’d perhaps think as it isn’t the sort of thing that you drop into casual conversation. I learnt from an early age that when somebody asks you how you are, they aren’t really asking that at all. The stock response of ‘yes, I’m fine, thank you … and you?’ is the only response that should be given - if you wish to remain socially acceptable. (Actually, I think the more accurate word might be ‘accepted’.)
I didn’t carry my mother’s illness like a beacon, desperate for sympathy - in fact, honestly - most of the time at school, I completely forgot about it - or so I thought. The mind has an amazing capacity to protect itself with the mechanism of denial and boy, could I deny. I separated the two halves of myself - my home self, the girl with a mad mother who would often lay in a catatonic state for several days on the lounge floor whilst the family dog pissed against the sofa and shit on the floor, and my school self, the girl who strove to excel, to reach perfection in order to negate the chaos of my upbringing.
My mother had the most amazing capacity to create disruption on a phenomenal scale with the least amount of physical energy. She would often choose the most inconvenient spot in the house, usually the doorway between the lounge and the kitchen, and lay down in the foetal position. Once settled, she’d slip into a catatonic state for days on end. During this time she would not eat nor drink, pass urine nor sleep. (Despite all of her the doctors stating this was a physical impossibility and that they were sure that when we were in bed she lived a secret, functioning life.) One time, during one of these ‘episodes’ I decided to conduct a bit of scientific medical research with the aim of disproving the esteemed medical profession. I took a bag of flour from the kitchen and using the baking sift, sprinkled a fine layer of flour all over the floor and my catatonic mother. I then took photographs at regular intervals with the date and time setting switched on. By the fourth day, the flour and my mother were completely undisturbed. When I offered this evidence, printed out and in a file to her psychiatric consultant he just smiled and said,
“Hmm, interesting. I see you are becoming very … involved (implication was ‘fixated’) with your mother’s illness. Would you like to talk about how it makes you feel?”
“No,” I replied. “I’d like you to look at the evidence I have presented to you about my mother’s medical- expert-defying behaviour.”
“I see. So you don’t feel the need to talk about your response to your mother’s illness at this time then?”
Blah de blah de blah. After a while all of their talk comes out like a record with a stuck needle. Same phrases and language, just a different mask and name badge.
With her eyes fixed and wide open, I wondered that she did not get bored, but apparently it doesn’t work like that. Every now and then, when maybe she felt some need to connect with the world for whatever reason, she would emit a small mewling noise that after a while rendered watching the family T.V set a completely futile task.
Sometimes I forgot when I invited friends over after school to study, that stepping over a parent laying zombified on the floor was not a normal experience - maybe even in their quaintly sane worlds it might even be regarded as disrespectful. It wasn’t until some of them blushed as they stepped over her and offered a well civilised, “Good afternoon, Mrs Moon.” That I realised how far from norm we had travelled.
These were the downtimes and there were more down times than up - and thank God because the up times were quite a thing to behold. The days when I walked into the house to find it gleaming, smelling of disinfectant, fresh bread and freshly cut flowers were the days the bile would rise from my stomach and my heart would plummet. Her overly cheerful greeting and general in-the-hallway-soon-as-you-set-foot-in-door fussing would tell me that things were only going to go one way - up. Way, way up, past the stratosphere and all the way to Loony-Ville.
The reason we are here, back on Ward 16 (The Psychiatric Unit) is because last week I came home from school to find my mother tidying the house … she was still tidying the pristine house when I went to bed at midnight. You need to understand, this isn’t just a whistle-whilst-you-work, efficient, Mary Poppin’s kind of tidying, it is the frenzied scrubbing and the use of two or three bottles of bleach type of tidying. There is no whistling - just a constant stream of muttering, as if she is talking to each individual dust mote as if it is a naughty child. It was her screaming that woke me at four in the morning.
She was trying to bleach her own eyes.
I’d known that something would be coming - but it is always a surprise to discover the inventiveness of the psychotic mind. I’d gone to bed already dressed in jog pants and a sweater, full knowing that at some point I would be up. I ran to the kitchen to find her standing naked at the kitchen sink. She had taken her clothes off to wash away the dirt and then the compulsion to wash out her eyes had also gripped her. God knows what secret dirt she was hoping to wash away. She’d locked her childhood away and refused to ever talk about it.
At times like this, the only option is calm productivity. It’s a rapid exercise in prioritisation. I filled up the measuring jug with cold tap water and threw it straight into her face. It stopped the screaming momentarily and by the time she was just gathering ground to launch an attack, I followed it with another - hoping that it would be enough to dilute the bleach mixture and prevent any permanent damage to her eyes. Fortunately she started to sob, making her safe enough for me to leave her and ring the family GP.
Within the hour he’d arrived alongside an ambulance and a police car. The police always enter first. Two men. Each wearing stab-vests. It’s standard procedure - psychos can be dangerous. Once they see mother huddled in the corner nursing the wet tea-towel I’ve given her, they assess that she is low risk and the GP is called in. The GP assessment could be a long process so they step into the lounge and take a seat on the sofa. I offer them a cup of tea. After all, my mother’s taught me the importance of looking after guests. I’ve left a message on dad’s mobile, but he’s on the night shift and they’re not allowed their mobile phones on whilst they’re working. He’ll join me later at the hospital when is shift finishes at six-thirty. In the meantime I am my mother’s responsible guardian. It was a quiet night and the police officers kindly offered to drop me off at the hospital on their way back to the station. They are hard men, used to seeing the nastier side of life and yet it is clear that this situations saddens them. They looked at me with pity.
The GP injected her with a sedative, making the assessment at the hospital a long, drawn out process. They decided after several hours that a section three is necessary. It means she has lost her choice to leave. It means I will be visiting her here for the next several weeks. We’ve been here before. It’s not good news. This place makes her worse - it’s full of weirdos.
The whole wedding day has been an exercise in vulgarity. Clearly his mother has mistaken this day as her first wedding and that she is a blushing virgin bride. The reception is taking place at the most expensive hotel in the county and no expense has been spared. Uncle Graham is a very wealthy man and he likes the world to know it. He took early retirement from his City Bank job when his brother died and moved out here to the country to look after his brother’s concerns. Well he’s certainly done a through job of that.
Malachi has remained a dark inky-stain amongst all the white and jewelled fabrics that swathe the reception room. Flamboyant exotic-flower centre pieces make the room look like some gaudy carnival. Over four hundred guests have been invited - the cream of Northex society. Only a small handful of the guests are family - most of them were conveniently already committed to other events - what with the short notice. In fact when Malachi looks around the room, he realises that most of them are complete strangers to him. There are none of his father’s friends here. He wonders passingly if they weren’t invited or if they had declined their invitations. He catches Maud’s eye and she offers him a conspiratorial smile. She looks beautiful dressed in her pale-blue satin dress and her blond hair all piled in ringlets. Malachi muses that he has not noticed until this point that she is fast becoming a woman.
Lucy is sat next to him. She is slowly getting tipsy on champagne. It is making her giggly and daring. She is attempting to get his attention by flirting with the son of one of the county squires. Malachi glances at the situation mildly amused. The boy has been seriously hit by the genetic ugly-stick. He is no real threat. When she realises that this tactic is not working, her hand strokes along Malachi’s thigh and down in between his legs. She is teasing him, knowing that even if his mind can’t pay her attention then his body will. It is an involuntary reflex. Lucy is a pretty girl. He lets her continue, seeing just how far she will go, but he’s called her bluff and her hand meanders away back to her champagne glass.
Malachi is grateful when the meal is done and the speeches are complete. It is noted that her son does not make a toast to his mother-bride. Uncle Graham (now his wicked step-father) raises a glass in his direction and Malachi turns his head in the other direction. He can feel his mother’s anger from across the room. The moment is quickly passed.
By the time the tables have been cleared and the lights dimmed for the band, most of the company are so drunk they can barely remember why they are gathered. Lucy leans into him and makes an attempt to whisper seductively,
“Shall we go back to yours? Mummy and Daddy will be here until the morning, and your house is empty.”
Before he can answer, Malachi’s mother approaches. She is flushed from the excitement, the champagne and the anger towards her son for being a social disgrace. She leans in and whispers in a hard tone,
“If you can’t even pretend to be bloody happy for us, then why don’t you just go home, Malachi? You’re embarrassing us all.”
Malachi takes the last swig of champagne from his glass and stands, straightens his tie and tucks his shirt into his belt. “God, I thought you’d never ask.”
She presses her lips together. She can not rise the stakes without causing an unpleasant scene and Malachi knows this. He takes his jacket off the back of the chair. Lucy is in flux. She wants to go with him but she knows that it will upset his mother, who is bound to tell her parents. She fidgets in her seat and then attempts to stand. Malachi shoots her a look and gives her a shake of the head. Her face crumples momentarily before she pulls her self together and flicks her hair, pretending that it doesn’t matter.
Malachi walks out into the cold night air and pulls his mobile phone from his pocket. He texts Ophelia and summons her for a game of chess. Sometimes she pretends that she has not received his texts, just as he pretends that he has not received her love letters.
By the time her arrives home, Ophelia is sat waiting on the doorstep. She looks tired, he thinks. Tonight she is wearing a strangely romantic combination of a floor length woollen skirt and a black cotton blouse. Her stockings are striped purple and black. Her Doc Martin boots are splashed with mud where she has cut through the cemetery and walked along the back lane to his house. She has only visited his home once, when she came to collect a study book. She stands when she sees him. He looks tired, she thinks.
“Evening,” she calls. Her face is like white alabaster against the night.
“You’ve cut your hair.” He states it neutrally and she can not tell if her short pixie crop pleases him or not.
It does please him - very much. He thinks she looks exquisite, like a woodland nymph.
Ophelia has cut it to spite her mother, although she is unaware of the complex subconscious choice behind it.
She follows in his shadow, noticing the nameplate of the house. ‘Elsinore’. She recalls that Malachi’s father was an English Professor. She takes off her boots and leaves them in the hallway. She is worried about leaving mud on the expensive afghan rugs. He leads her to his father’s study. A chessboard is already set out on the desk. Malachi takes off his jacket and swings it over the back of the chair and invites Ophelia to sit on the opposite side.
“Drink?” he asks.
She nods and he leaves the room. She spends the time looking around the study, trying to get the measure of Malachi’s father and maybe of Malachi. She has known him for over a year. They have a complicated relationship that she has given up trying to define.
He returns with a bottle of red and two heavy crystal glasses.
“Shall we play?” he asks. He pours the wine until the glass is full. He pulls at his tie and loosens it but it isn’t enough, so he removes it and lays it on the desk beside the chess set. For some reason Ophelia is momentarily captivated by it. She wonders if the day will come when he will finally kiss her. When he passes her the glass, his hand lingers so that it touches her more than is necessary. He moves his pawn two squares forward.
She responds by mirroring his move.
“My mother married my uncle today,” he states.
Ophelia nods. Everybody knows about it. It’s been the talk of the village for weeks.
“They sectioned my mother yesterday. She tried to bleach her own eyes.”
Malachi had been about to move his knight forward, but he hesitates when she tells him this and looks directly at her. She feels hot under his gaze and she wishes she could take her words back. Now he feels sorry for her and she doesn’t want his pity.
He moves his knight and picks up his wine glass. He is searching for something to say.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” is all he says.
“Me too!” she whispers. She moves her bishop.
When the heavy silence becomes difficult to ignore, he picks up the remote for the stereo and presses play. It is Chopin, one of Ophelia’s favourites.
After the swift and decisive initial moves, the game slows. They are a good match - perhaps too well matched. Ophelia muses on the game being an apt metaphor for their twisted little relationship. She would like to ask Malachi about Lucy - why she isn’t here, but she knows better. His mood is already sour and Lucy comes between them enough already. She wonders if Malachi knows just how much she hates her.
When they have emptied the bottle, Malachi returns with a bottle of port. It is dated nineteen-ninety-five.
“My father brought it to open on my eighteenth birthday.”
“When is your birthday?”
“Shouldn’t you save it?” she asks.
“Well won’t your family want to share it with you?”
“No. It was always meant for my father and me.”
By the time Maud arrives home with grandmama, Malachi and Ophelia are slumped on the floor of the study against the saggy old sofa listening to old-school rock. The Chess set is scattered across the desk, a casualty of earlier spontaneous dancing. Maud comes to the study door and looks in on them. She rolls her eyes and Malachi giggles as if being found by a disapproving parent.
“Grandmama is staying here tonight. Mama thought we might need some adult supervision.”
“You mean, she thinks that I might need some adult supervision, Miss goody God shoes!”
Maud is hurt by his words and he immediately regrets his teasing. He loves Maud more than all of the rest of them put together.
“Whatever! You might want to sneak Ophelia out the back door before she goes all … you know.” Maud hands out Ophelia’s boots. “Fortunately for you she didn’t recognise these as girl’s shoes.”
Ophelia has made her way to the door and takes the boots from Maud with an awkward smile of thanks.
“Maud’s right, I’d better go. It’s late.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
Opehelia isn’t sure what Malachi is saying. Surely he doesn’t mean for her ‘to spend the night’. They haven’t even kissed. He reaches for her hand and misses. She realises that he is very drunk. She does not want him like this. She will not become a drunken regret.
“Good night sweet prince and flights of angels guide thee to your rest.”
He recognises the quote immediately and a wry smile dances across his lips. “Off you go back to your nunnery then!”