Published on August 2nd, 2009 | by Jillian Wightman0
Writers’ Group: Summers Past by Sue Hunter
Of course, it wasn’t by choice that I landed up in the mental hospital. No one in their right mind would choose to go there. But at fifteen I needed a summer job because I wanted to buy a wireless of my own, and the local plastics factory wouldn’t have me. So at 8 o’clock one July morning I clocked on at the gate-house and started six weeks employment as a scullery maid in the huge kitchens of the mental hospital on Dartford Heath. I worked until 2.00 pm six a days a week, and was so proud of my little brown pay packet. Each week it contained £2.4s.1d. That included danger money, because I worked beside patients. But big burly Joe and poor pathetic Millie were no threat. I was more worried about how to chop up rhubarb into the right sized cubes. Huge sticks of the stuff came from the hospital farm, which was worked by the patients. They also worked in the kitchens, laundry, gardens, and mess-rooms. It must have been a great vision in its day, aiming to find a useful job for every inmate, but the vision had soured, the Poor Law buildings looked forbidding and out of place in the mid twentieth century, and I never met anyone, staff or patient, who was actually happy to be there. Still, I got my radio, a lovely little Pye in a wooden frame; it had a wonderful tone, especially on the Home service. And I had enough money left over to buy a pair of red shoes. Bliss.
The following summer I moved up, to kitchen maid. I helped Maureen make the special diets: beef tea for the poorly patients, fish and chips on Friday for the Catholics, mashed potato, and rice pudding for the toothless ones, all cooked in vast boilers, and stirred with wooden paddles as big as me. Then all the diets were duplicated as salt free or sugar free. Maureen unexpectedly had to take two weeks off and I was left to struggle on with the diets, but cleverly cut corners by omitting salt and sugar from everything.
Next year I was promoted to mess-room maid, in the male mess room. That must have been someone’s idea of fun, to have me at sweet seventeen serving breakfast to a load of far-from-home male nurses. I loved it. I took a particular shine to a Welsh nurse called Idris Griffiths. I sent for the BBC Learning Welsh course, hoping to greet him one morning in his native tongue. But I got no further than Hanner Ower Wedi Dai, which I believed at the time meant half-past two. As I still knocked off at two o’clock I had, alas, no reason to use it. An elderly patient called Horace helped with the washing up. We got on fine. He had discovered the secret of the universe and was eager to share it: it could all be explained by a system of numbers. He gave everyone a number; I remember mine was quite a long one, which somehow included both my personality and prospects. Horace loved birds. I bought him a beautiful papier mâché bird from Woolworth’s and my mother began to wonder about my sanity. She hoped the lack of it wasn’t infectious.
My fourth and final summer I applied to work on the wards. As an auxiliary nurse I was given a pale blue striped uniform. Purple stripes indicated student nurses, of which there were many, from every conceivable commonwealth country. Dark blue uniforms with sleeves rolled up were ward sisters. Dark blue with sleeves rolled down was matron. Apart from the sisters, I can’t remember seeing any qualified nurses. Maybe they were the ones that got away.
I was assigned to a first floor unlocked ward of sixty female patients. No-one ever explained to me what their problems were, and they were all treated the same. The more able patients were supposed to go to Occupational Therapy in “The Block”. These included Trotty, a rotund older lady with an insatiable appetite who was frequently being hauled out of the ward bread bin. She divided her days between knitting and looking for her drawers. Neither occupation yielded much success; she was trying to knit a glove, but always carried on knitting way after she should have decreased for the thumb and fingers. One day she wandered off on the journey back from The Block and I was sent to hunt for her, in the hospital’s extensive grounds. She was no great walker but I could see no sign of her on any of the paths or benches. I found her, at last, in the summer house. She’d evaded detection by lying down with her feet up on the bench, so that I couldn’t spot her from outside.
I tried to obey instructions with very little clear guidance. I was told to take patients to the toilet, bath them, wash their hair, and cut their nails and left to get on with it. I don’t think I made a very good job of it. The only definite guidelines were about sterilising all cutlery to be used by staff and making all beds with envelope corners and the blankets turned back in a very particular way. These were inspected much more diligently than the patients’ hair or toe nails. One Sunday morning, when I had to make all sixty beds on my own, I felt that my back would never be straight again.
There were two ward sisters, on separate shifts; one was a normal human being who seemed tired and dispirited, sad perhaps at not being able to organise the ward properly. The other was a fierce woman who made it quite clear that the whole set up was there for her benefit and for her favourite patient, a pretty young woman who was always with her in the kitchen or office. This patient was the only one who had a private room – the now redundant padded cell at the end of the ward. The others slept in two straight rows, with a locker between each bed to mark their private space.
One lady in her early forties who had pre-senility could only say “It’s funny now,” with a puzzled smile. Another was able to chat normally, but had no-one to talk to. So one afternoon I took her home on the bus to tea with my family. She enjoyed her tea but insisted on calling me “Nurse” in spite of my mother’s firm comment, “at home we call her Sue.” She told us that on the day war broke out it was her 11th Birthday, and her mother committed suicide. So the girl was committed to a mental home. She couldn’t get out unless someone was willing to sign for her. The Mental Health Act 1963 changed that. I hope she got out eventually. A small, silent woman called Helen always froze when she was dressing in the morning. As she stepped into her pants she would go rigid, with one leg on the ground and one in the air. No amount of shouting or pushing on the part of the Nurse on duty would shift her. Later, when I was at university, idly flicking through a friend’s psychology books and glancing at the pictures, I saw a photo of a man in exactly Helen’s position, holding his trousers out, immobile, one foot on the ground, one leg raised. It shocked me to realise that Helen’s problem was an identifiable condition, it had a name. Maybe it also had a treatment.
Some evenings I was sent down to help on the ground floor locked ward, where the patients were all demented. Trying to get fractious old ladies to bed, I tried reasoning with them, until I was sometimes as much aware of the tiger under the bed as they were. There was a routine inspection every night at midnight, when it was expected that patients should all be in bed in clean nighties. That was an awful lot of nighties. Staff on this ward had a solution – the enuretic old ladies were put to bed naked and the nice clean nighties saved for the midnight hour. One night I was told to sit on one patient’s bed to stop her from climbing out: she was desperate to go and cook the evening meal for her family. I offered to do it for her, and she looked at me, as confusion momentarily lifted, and said, “Don’t be silly.” Sitting on her bed, I solemnly vowed that I would never, ever let anyone of mine go into one of those places. Goodness knows how I would have prevented it. Happily the world has moved on in the intervening years, and now when I visit friends and relations in Residential and Nursing Homes I silently give thanks for the tasteful curtains, carpets, single bedrooms and mostly gentle staff.
That summer’s experience made me value sanity above all things, while being acutely aware of what a thin line divides sanity from madness. I have never been able to understand how anyone could risk losing their reason, even for a moment, through drink or drugs. And my future husband had to promise to love me whether sane or demented, as well as for richer or poorer.
How could I have guessed, when I first started saving for my wireless, that the experience of four teenage summers would have such an impact on the rest of my life.