Tales from The Asylum I: New Nurse
The bus dropped me off in the village of Heargton. The Asylum, I had been told, was just a short ten minute walk through the village on the East Road. The Matron had neglected to inform me that the way would be little more than a mud track through a creepy wood. I looked down at my once pristine white nurses’ shoes and sighed. Mud-spattered was not the first impression I had intended to make. I hoped she would put it down to youthful ignorance rather than carelessness.
My mother had cried when I’d left for my first day in my new job. She’d had noble and romantic notions of me being a modern day Florence Nightingale; falling for some heroic soldier who I helped heal in both body and soul, not spending my days tending to the violent and criminally insane.
I shivered with the quiet fear that was unravelling in my stomach. The wind wound its way through the trunks of the tall Scots Pines creating an eerie, mournful moan. As I walked, it became a chorus of other pitiful cries – those of human relics. I looked at my watch, knowing exactly what time it was. I had planned my journey meticulously. But there was something in the shadowy gloom that made me question momentarily if I hadn’t somehow been tricked. It read two p.m.
The Rookeries grew from some haunted looking dolls’ house into a Victorian redbrick monstrosity. Gothic revival in style, the whole thing was decorated like an over the top wedding cake, as if somehow they could hide the ugliness incarcerated within from the outside world. I wasn’t fooled. There was something sinister about the florid stone floristry – as if it might contain a hundred deadly vipers.
I rang the bell and waited. I didn’t have to wait for long. It was opened by a squat woman with a sour mouth. Her eyes coldly and slowly appraised me from head to toe. Her lips twisted at the sight of my shoes. There was something in her look that made me feel naked, as if I were little more than meat on a butcher’s counter.“You’re late,” she said by way of welcome.
I glanced down at my watch. It was three minutes past two.
“I’m sorry,” I said doing my best to hide my irritation with a look of contrition.
“Well, you’d better come in. Doctor Mappin is waiting for you,” she said, turning her back on me and leading me into the cave-like hallway.
I scanned the room, taking in the heavy oak furniture and black and white tiles. It looked like the hallway of a country house, rather than an asylum, although I was soon to learn that like everything else I had seen of the place so far, it was a front to the inner horror.
A scream came from somewhere deep inside the hospital and startled me. As if the nurse had eyes in the back of her head, she said,
“You get used to the noises after a time.” She led me up the sweeping staircase and along a corridor of glass windowed offices. Some of them had a row of sorry little metal chairs outside, which I guessed were for waiting relatives. I was instructed to take one of them outside an office which had the title of MATRON painted in gold on its window. The nurse walked further down the corridor before knocking on what I presumed must be the office of Doctor Mappin. ‘Strange’ I thought, that I should not have been asked to sit on one of the chairs outside of his office.
“The girl has finally arrived.”Doctor Mappin peered over his papers. His half-moon glasses glinted in the afternoon grey winter light.
“Good, good.” He nodded.
Nurse Mary waited for the doctor to enquire more, but his attention was clearly drawn to whatever reading material he was holding.
“She seems quite perfect. I’m sure that she will meet his specific requirements,” Mary said, trying to engage the doctor.
He flicked her a look, and Mary thought she saw the slightest shudder run through his shoulders. Doctor Mappin was essentially a good man, although The Rookeries Asylum was a world within a world in which the usual laws of good and bad were somewhat skewed. He was certainly, of the four doctors that worked here, the best of them. Mary had heard the rumours amongst the patients and other nurses; she’d walked past the locked rooms. No signs instructed, ‘No Entry’ but the keys could never be found.
“Quite,” he said dismissively, although Mary knew that it was not disinterest but an unwillingness to be too deeply involved in the dark matter.
“So shall I call her in?”
“No. Take her straight down to him.”
Mary’s forehead crumpled. “But won’t she find that… strange, doctor?”
“I really think that is the least of her problems, don’t you?”
Mary nodded and padded silently out of the room.
She smiled at the girl, whose name escaped her. It didn’t matter. In some ways it was better for her not to know. The Matron would take care of contacting her parents; informing them that she hadn’t turned up for her appointment and that her job offer had been withdrawn. They might contact the police and trace her steps as far as the bus station but that would be it. The Rookeries was owned and protected very powerful people.
The nurse came out of the office and smiled at me. It was the first time she had smiled since we’d met. I preferred her scowl; there was something over sweet about her smile, as if her teeth were fashioned of sugar cubes. She apologised on behalf of the doctor, who was ‘very busy’ and had requested that she show me around. She informed me that I was to work primarily with one of their patients; the son of a very wealthy family, although he was not, as he would no doubt claim in his conversations, a prince.“No, no, no – imagine the scandal!” she exclaimed in such a way that I immediately suspected that the man may be a prince. “The poor man suffers from delusions of grandeur – he’s very convincing.”
I nodded sagely, hoping that my inexperience and excited curiosity was not too obvious. “Why is he here?”
She flinched, and I wondered what horrible malady the man must suffer to make even an experienced psychiatric nurse recoil.
“He has…” she struggled with her words, clearly not wanting to tell me and yet feeling compelled to answer a question she’d been asked. “Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to see what your own assessment is after you meet him.”
Excitement flared. “But he’s,” I cleared my throat, “he’s safe for me to work with, yes?”
“Aubery is a perfect gentleman,” she reassured.
She pushed open the door and we stepped into the twisted soul of the building. It was a soul made of iron bars, soiled stiff calico and tears – some silent, some screaming. I couldn’t help but look in at the wretched creatures held in their cells. Regardless of their crimes, there was something inhumane and cruel about their plight. My presence caused a ripple of eerie catcalls and outpourings of desperation. As if sensing my horror, the nurse explained,
“This ward is for the most criminally insane. They are here because their crimes are so awful that Satan himself would have reservations over allowing them in to Hell. Don’t let them move you to pity. If you knew their stories, you’d feel entirely different. Female nurses never work in here. Only the Matron and I are allowed access so that we might tend to Aubery.”
My instincts started a quiet warning. Questions whispered in my mind. Why was I ‘allowed’ here? ‘Why was Aubery so close to such monsters if he wasn’t a monster too?’ My nerves jangled and I felt small the small prickle of sweat on my palms.
At last, we reached the end of the corridor and the nurse rummaged her chatelaine of keys before inserting a large metal key into the lock of the barred door. One through, she locked it behind her, adding to my mounting paranoia. Here, the corridor was flanked either side with wooden doors that were still clearly cells but which offered more privacy than the ones in the previous section. She guided me down to the end and I wondered how often I would have to make this journey before it became part of normal. Here there was silence behind the doors, and I wondered if in fact they were inhabited at all. I wasn’t sure what was worse – to be locked away surrounded by the cries of the tormented mad, or to be cocooned in silence.
The nurse knocked on the door and I was surprised to see that on invite she simply turned the handle and entered: the patient apparently free to enter and leave his room as he pleased.“Mary,” he greeted with a voice like a velvet ribbon. “How nice of you to call.”
I smiled inwardly. At last I knew the nurse’s name, and she had been right about his gentlemanly sense of delusion. I stepped into the room behind her and saw how it was far more like an apartment than the cold brick cells I had seen on my journey so far. There were heavy velvet drapes at the barred window, which even at this time of the day, were drawn against the sombre afternoon light. The man, who was unnervingly handsome, was reclined on a threadbare chaise and dressed as if he had raided the clothes rail of the local amateur dramatics society.
Mary turned to me, beckoning me forward and I saw his eyes swivel towards me, giving the unnerving impression of a lizard. He smiled approvingly, and it seemed simple good manners to hold my hand out in greeting, even though it was the very last thing that nursing protocol demanded. I sensed Mary moving towards the door and looked to her for clarification as to what it was I was meant to be doing.
She was already half way out – her body slinking through the closing gap of the door.“Enjoy your meal, Aubery,” she said as the door clicked behind her.
I looked to the man and saw him smile. We had not brought a tray of food with us and as I scanned the room, I could see no other lunch set out. I backed towards the door, not taking my eyes off the man on the chaise. His impossibly pointed teeth bit down onto the cushion of his lips, and a flare of hunger flashed through his eyes.
“Come, little lamb,” he crooned, swinging his legs off the chaise and patting the seat next to him. “Let me tell you a story before I dine.”
The realisation of my fate struck me so hard that I felt physically winded. I tried the door handle, but it simply rattled in my hand, stubbornly refusing to turn. I pummelled the door with my fists until they burned, crying out for Mary – but Mary was gone, and with her, all my hope.