Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home
Fisting the pinking shears, Janice trimmed a sheet of shiny red paper and slid it across the dining table to her mother. “For the last time, I don’t mind.”
“Thanks, love, but there must be more exciting things you could do on your birthday.”
A cardboard box dripped tinsel snakes onto the carving chair. One of her mum’s many toolkits, it housed the ingredients for thirty individualised crackers, a few hundred seasonal cut-outs for tiny hands to decorate and thousands of links for paper-chain streamers. “I’d forgotten how hectic your job gets in the run-up to Christmas. I’m happy to muck in.” Her dad would’ve been helping also if her mother hadn’t insisted he replace the brake pads on Janice’s Polo.
“We were surprised when you rang. It’s fabulous to see you but you haven’t spent your birthday with us since your teens.”
“You didn’t have to bake a cake.”
“Didn’t you like it?”
“It was yummy. Once you’d scraped the burnt bit off.” Janice laughed. “But I shouldn’t have put you to the trouble.”
“Nothing I do for you is ever any trouble. Not one single thing.” Her mum arose from the table, wrapped her arms around her and pulled her in. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
They’d hugged when she’d arrived, shoulders tense from hunching over the steering wheel, but this was different. This made her want to melt into her mother’s body, seeking a physical fusion they’d never had. “Who said there was anything wrong?”
“No-one. Nor would you have to tell me if there was. But you’re here when you could be with your friends in Nottingham. Or making new ones in Cumbria. You can’t have come for my baking. Could it be the job’s a bit of a let-down?”
“No, it’s fantastic!”
“But you’ve been there two months and haven’t discharged everyone? I was an idealist once.”
“Oh, Mum, the injustice! The waste of so many lives! There’s a woman who’s been incarcerated for half a century. For no reason at all.”
“Let’s mash a brew and you can tell me her story. I don’t know about you, but I could murder another slice of burnt cake.”
Although not timetabled into her induction, the wards for Ghyllside’s most severely disabled patients weren’t out of bounds. With a gap in her diary, Janice invited herself to the women’s continuing-care ward.
Ward 24 was on the first floor, above a similar facility for men. Plodding up the stairs, Janice pondered whether they were intended as a disincentive to the men from visiting the women or to the women from leaving the ward at all.
A corridor led to a large lounge bordered by stiff-backed chairs where old ladies sat in splendid isolation while, beyond their reach, a television chatted to itself. The afternoon sun spilling through the high windows could not dispel the gloom. Hunched figures paced the carpet while others, seated, snored or muttered witchy incantations. Some rocked and others contorted their lips and jaws like gurners at Crab Fair, except that these women didn’t twist their faces for a prestigious prize, but as a side-effect of antipsychotic medication.
In contrast to the rehabilitation wards, the staff wore the traditional nurse uniform, in deepening shades of blue spanning the hierarchy from nursing assistant to sister. Although the residents had no official uniform, they all wore shapeless floral dresses in non-iron nylon with thin cardigans, and slippers.
In a blue so dark it was a hair’s breadth from black, Sister Henderson occupied a desk in an office with an observation window into the lounge. As Janice took a seat by the open door, one of the pale-blue minions set down a tea tray with matching teapot, milk jug, and china cups and saucers, a lidded bowl of sugar cubes with filigree tongs. In addition to tea, Sister Henderson dispensed a slew of demographics: who was the oldest; who had been resident the longest; who had been subjected to the most courses of ECT. Her monologue was punctuated by a procession of old ladies to the door, whom Sister Henderson studiously ignored. Janice was becoming accustomed to the ritual when the nurse cut short her soliloquy on insulin coma therapy.
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