Photo by Simon Hurry
Artillery Row

What’s it like to have a home? Part II

Decades later, I remembered my mother’s mental patients

Read Part I here.

For most of my mother’s students, the mental asylum was the only place they’d ever called home. On his seventieth birthday, a quiet, thoughtful man named Peter was asked to make a wish as he blew out the candles on a cake she’d baked for him. Peter was struggling to come up with a suitable wish, so mum pressed him for an answer. “Come on, Peter, we don’t have all day.”

“Well,” he eventually said, “I’d really love to see the inside of a house.”

There was a moment of silence. My mother stared at him. Everyone else, myself included, stared at my mother. She cleared her throat — and for a second, something like emotion passed across her eyes. She mentioned the bungalows dotted around the grounds of the hospital.

“Oh, yes, I know those,” Peter smiled. “But so far nobody has ever invited me inside one of them.” 

Peter was a special case, in that he was allowed out of the hospital on Saturdays, when he would walk from Harperbury to St. Albans. After an hour or two spent strolling alone around the market, he’d walk the few miles back again to the hospital.

“Don’t you ever get the bus?” my mother asked him.

“Oh, no,” I remember Peter saying. “I can’t read the numbers.”

Then there was Tom, who was in his late sixties and could read. He’d been committed to Harperbury when he was seventeen because he’d robbed a gas meter. “He’s really quite bright,” my mother said about Tom. “But after he robbed that gas meter, his mother claimed that she couldn’t control him and had him committed. And she’s refused ever since to sign anything to let him out.”

She studied me for a moment. Then she handed me a broom, pointing to a mess of broken crockery on the floor.

“So let that be a warning to you, Sonny Jim.”

When his mother died, Tom took the chance to marry one of the other patients at Harperbury. According to my mother, his bride was “dim as a Toc-H lamp”. I begged to go to their wedding at Barnet registry office, but for some reason, my parents forced me to attend school that day instead. After the ceremony, two social workers took Tom and his new wife for a forty-eight-hour honeymoon somewhere in the Midlands.

At that time, in addition to her work with the Harperbury patients, my mother was lecturing at a university, teaching part-time at a secondary school, doing early years work for social services in Hertford and Hatfield, and teaching Youth Training Scheme students at Borehamwood College. These she memorably described as “a lazy load of slobs: the kind of thickos for whom one has no hope whatsoever”. 

One day, in a stroke of genius, she brought Tom with her to talk to the YTS students about his life and, in her words, “put the fear of God into the idle sods”. Before Tom stood up to speak, she warned the room that today’s guest was very special, that he had been locked away for his entire life, and that he might, as was his habit, say everything twice. 

That evening, I found my mother bent over the stovetop in our family kitchen. When I asked her how it went, she lifted her head from the bubbling saucepans, her eyes sparkling under the spotlights. “Tom was a triumph!” she crowed. “The yobbos were gobsmacked. Really, I wish you’d been there. A room full of worthless seventeen-year old layabouts quaking in their seats. Oh, what a picture. Their faces were priceless. Absolutely priceless!”   

It was the first time in their lives that any of them had ever eaten in a restaurant

The last class I attended (by feigning a bout of pneumonia) turned into an impromptu fashion show. A banker friend of my mother’s was always buying himself new, expensive suits. “What do you do with your old ones?” my mother asked him one afternoon, and before he could answer, a deal was struck. Soon enough, people all over town were donating shirts and sweater vests, cardigans and handbags, which we’d share out amongst the patients. Reg was six foot five and his trousers always stopped halfway down his shins. “Reg, you can’t go around dressed like that,” my mother said with a shake of her head. “It makes you look… crazy.”

Reg disappeared into one of the storerooms. When he re-emerged, he was dressed stylishly in one of the newly donated banker’s suits, his old, crappy clothes folded neatly over his forearm. Everybody burst into applause as he twirled around the kitchen, blushing like a debutante.

Rose tugged on my sleeve. “I needs me a new nightie,” she said. “Got any nighties for Rose, my love?”

I never saw the students together again. Incredibly, my mother managed to save up some of the money from her budget, and one Christmas, she took the entire class out to a greasy spoon café on the high street. It was the first time in their lives that any of them had ever eaten in a restaurant, and the owners of the cheap and dingy establishment had to be warned in advance. Again, I begged to go, but again, I was fobbed off with some ludicrous crap about my formal education taking priority. Thankfully, after the big event, my mother spared a few of the details while pouring herself a glass of wine.

“Well,” she said, “they all came dressed up in their best clothes, accompanied by two hulking great minders from the hospital. Of course, we had to prepare them first, as they were extremely over-excited, and kept needing the loo. Eventually, after much kerfuffle, we paraded together down to the high street with only one or two hiccups. They had to remember how to cross the road, which took an age, during which one of the dopier old dears wandered straight into the traffic. We had to chase her down the middle of the street. It was hairy stuff.”

She took a large gulp of her wine. 

“Finally, we sat down in this spit and polish place, at which point, I realised there were no menus, only chalkboards listing the specials. It was egg and chips, sausage, chips and beans—the usual rubbish. Then, like an idiot, I made a horrendous error. I read out the menu for them and told them they could choose what they liked. Well, they all froze and two of the women burst into tears. It was an utter fiasco and I felt… I feel really terrible.”

“Why were they in tears?” I asked, not following.

She ran a tired hand through her hair. “Because their entire lives, no one has ever asked them to make a choice. Asking them to pick what they wanted to eat for lunch was like asking me to climb Mount Everest.”

I decided to change the subject. “Did they mind their Ps and Qs?” 

“Yes,” she said, smiling to herself. “They remembered to do that, at least. Some of them even tried to use a knife and fork.”

The giant leapt on top of my mother, wrapping her in a bear hug

Years later, I saw one of them again. I was sat with my mother in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, when a giant blew in through the double doors, several licks ahead of his tiny Filipino nurse, who was barely half his height and scuttling after him, grabbing at his coattail. Suddenly, with a loud “Mwaaarrrrgggghhhh!” the enormous man came to a jarring halt, as if someone had electrocuted him. He proceeded to leap up and down like he was on a trampoline, flailing his arms about as he made a series of vulgar moaning sounds. Then he shot across the room with his perfectly straight arms held out in front of him. Everyone started to scream, diving for cover behind the waiting room chairs as dentists in white coats flew out of rooms from all directions. In a flash, the giant leapt on top of my mother, wrapping her in a bear hug.

Her face was now buried somewhere in his armpit. “Bob?” she said in a calm, muffled voice. “Bob? Now, we don’t behave like that, do we? Do you remember how we behave?”

Bob couldn’t remember my mother’s name, but he had no trouble remembering that he liked her. “Oh,” he said, in a booming monotone, “yeah. I mean: Hello, nice to meet you.” He took a stride backwards, holding out his meaty hand, which my admirably unflustered mother stepped forward and shook.

“My friend!” Bob roared proudly, looking around the room as he pointed at my mother. “My friend!” 

I cast my eyes towards the pint-sized Filipino minder, whose mouth had fallen wide open. “I… I thought he was going to hurt you,” she said. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother said. “We’re old friends, aren’t we, Bob? You’d never hurt me, would you?”

“No, no,” said Bob, still shaking my mother’s hand. “Never. Never. My friend!”

Decades passed before I thought about any of them again. I was living and working in central London when my mother called to request a favour. No longer educating the simple-minded, she was jetting off to Eastern Europe to advise the Prime Minister of Latvia, or somewhere. “It’s a big ask, I know,” she said, “but would you consider staying up here to look after your father? There’s no chance he’ll survive a week on his own, and I’d rather not return to find a famished corpse in my bed.”

I accepted the challenge. My father greeted me at the front door, insisting that my mother was making a fuss over nothing. “I can manage perfectly well without you, thank you very much,” he said. “I’m not an idiot, you know. I can cook.”

“Oh?” I said, dropping my bags onto the doormat. “What, exactly, can you cook?”

He waved an irritable hand. “You know. Whatever you call those things. The frozen thingamajigs from Marks and Spencer.”

“That’s not cooking,” I told him.

“Don’t be absurd,” he said, “of course it’s cooking.” Then he disappeared into the living room, where a raucous performance of Beethoven’s seventh was blasting from his hi-fi.

An hour or so later, he drifted into the kitchen, where I was busy chopping garlic. “Can I help with anything?” he asked in an unconvincing way.

It was the perfect moment to test his skills. “Actually, yes,” I said, watching his face fall. “Could you grab me two tins of tomatoes?”

“Tomatoes.” His eyes darted nervously around the room, like he’d never seen it before. “Right.”

He proceeded to open every cupboard in the kitchen, littering the countertops with fly spray, plasters and lemon zesters. I said nothing. Finally, after swearing like a sailor for ten minutes, he turned to me, saying, “We don’t have any tomatoes.”

I looked across the room, where he’d lined up twenty-seven tins of Italian plum tomatoes alongside five bags of flour and three vials of food colouring.

“No?” I said. “Then what are those?”

“What are what?” he asked.

“Those,” I said, pointing at the rows of tins. 

“Strawberries,” he said in an uncertain voice. Then he picked up one of the tins, examining the label. “Aren’t they?”

As I cooked the sauce, I noticed that he was still loitering. “Anything else?” he said.

“Does the sous-chef agree we should make a salad?” I asked. 

“Of course.” He grinned. “Your mother always makes a good salad. Unless I’m naughty, then I don’t get fed at all.”

“Well, then,” I said, “find us a nice fresh head of lettuce.”

My mother was livid when Rose was forced out into the community

For some reason, he vanished from the room. Twenty minutes later there was still no sign of him, so I turned the heat down on the sauce and set off in search of answers. I found him outside in the standalone garage. Frozen chickens and pork chops were scattered on the floor around his leather slippers, and his head was buried somewhere inside the industrial-sized chest freezer.

“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.

The sound of my voice made him jump, and he cracked his head on the open lid of the freezer. “I’m looking for bloody lettuce,” he said, rubbing his crown. “It’s a mystery where the hell your mother keeps the damn stuff.” 

Things continued in this vein for the entire week. When, blessedly, my mother returned, she floated into the living room on a high, looking every inch the professional globetrotter. 

“Ah, guess who’s back!” my father shouted. He rose from his lounge chair to greet her, forgetting that the enormous pair of headphones on his head were plugged into his hi-fi. He shied like a lassoed horse, crashing back down into his chair. 

“So,” my mother asked, turning her attention to me, “how was our inmate?” 

“Oh, you know,” I said, tucking my shirt into my trousers. “As advertised.”

Dad had his eyes closed and a dreamy look on his face, lost again already in his music. 

“I’m not joking,” my mother sighed. “Look at the plonking idiot. I honestly don’t know what he’d do without me.”

In that moment, I thought about Albert and Peter and Tom and Reg and Bob. But mostly I thought about Rose, and how livid my mother was when Rose was forced out into the community. It happened soon after she had “graduated” from my mother’s cookery classes. With the best intentions, the authorities stuck her in an old people’s home somewhere in Essex, where she didn’t know a soul.

“It’s the cruellest thing that I ever saw!” my mother raged at the time. “Do you know what they told her when she asked what she could help with? ‘Oh, no,’ they told her, ‘you don’t need to do anything, dear. It’s all done for you here.’ So poor old Rose is cut off and alone, devastated at not having anything to do, like clean her chapel and sing.”

Back in our family living room, my father began to conduct the orchestra in his head, and I turned to look at my mother. For a moment, she stood framed in the doorway in her smart work suit, fresh from counselling yet another Prime Minister in yet another far-off land. Then she vanished, off to push back the endless tide of her emails. For the briefest moment, I wished I was Rose. For then, and maybe only then, I’d have been able to stop my mother with a long, clingy hug, and rest my head tenderly against her bosom.

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