The train drew away from the station. Sally and I stood in the corridor watching through the dirty window as John Lines’ office block and the long brick wall of Reading Prison slid past. A sweet smell came from Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit factory.
After the engine sheds and warehouses the train passed the seedsmen’s nurseries, with acres of red and yellow flowers stretching away from the line. Then, returning to the compartment, we saw meadows of a brilliant green and the willowy banks of the Thames. The train rattled with a familiar rhythm: Clackety clack.
‘Are we really going to London?’ Sally flopped down on the facing seat and turned to look up at her mother. ‘Will it take a long time?’
‘To the Zoo?’ I asked. ‘Or Madame Tussaud’s?’
‘What about Hamley’s?’ asked Sally.
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Auntie Audrey, vaguely. She had set her brown hair in small curls and her gathered cotton skirt was a neat pale blue; her lipstick was tidy and her cream shoes matched her handbag.
‘Will I meet my Mum?’ I asked.
Auntie Audrey glanced sharply at me. ‘I told you already, Beth, dear.’ The ‘dear’ bit sounded sharp too. ‘Your mother’s not well.’
I said nothing and stared at the weeds on the embankment that went past in a blur of pink flowers. I knew I would not be meeting my father either. I loved to spot the little brick huts beside the line, where I imagined the railwaymen lived. How I wished I could have a tiny house like that, all of my own.
After my dad left, my mother had been so afraid of going out. The telephone rang day and night, and she wouldn’t answer it. For a while, neighbours brought us bread and milk. Then a lady with glasses came one day to our house and said she had been sent by my school. She said that my Mum wasn’t well. For a few days I stayed with a family on the other side of town, before Auntie Audrey and Uncle Jim came to collect me. Mum was in hospital in London, that was all they could say.
Later, the lady with glasses said I was lucky that Auntie Audrey and Uncle Jim had taken a shine to me, so I wouldn’t have to be moved on. Even though they were not my aunt and uncle, they still tried to treat me the same as Sally, buying us the same shoes and clothes, and taking us on days out together. But it was Sally who ran to her father’s lap and clung to his neck when the Daleks appeared on Dr. Who.
All that day in London as we walked through the crowds I wondered whether a woman would approach me, crying ‘Beth! Beth! Is it really you?’ We would embrace, I would be back in her arms again. But it didn’t happen. I studied so many faces, but the eyes were never right. As we boarded the train at Paddington I tried my best to smile when Auntie Audrey said what a super day we’d all had.
As the years went by, Auntie Audrey and Uncle Jim stood by me, and I did well at school. We often had days out in London, and each time I made the journey with anxious, irrational hope, only to be disappointed.
When I was eighteen I took the train to London on my own.
At Reading General, Uncle Jim bought my ticket and we said goodbye at the ticket barrier. ‘Good luck.’ He shook my hand, patting me on the elbow. ‘I’m sure you’ll work hard. Your mother would have been proud of you.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked, wishing that she had been there to see me off.
He made a face, his mouth compressed together and turning down at the corners, his eyes sad and secret. ‘Good luck,’ he repeated. ‘We’ll see you at Christmas, I daresay?’
I wanted to hug him, but he turned quickly away.
At Paddington, the black cabs queued at the taxi rank, engines idling, and my case was heavy, but I wanted to save the fare and it was only a short walk from the railway station. Soon I unpacked the vinyl suitcase in my new room in the Nurses’ Home.
In those days there were hardly any lectures. We were sent to the wards as soon as we had been issued with our stiff uniforms and white aprons, and learned to pin our hair up beneath the white cap that was the first in a succession of ever more elaborate headwear. A Matron’s headdress was almost a foot high: starched white cotton over buckram with a long pair of frills draped behind. Long before my headwear became anything like that size, I went into psychiatric nursing, which to my relief could be carried out in ordinary clothes. I rented a small terraced house, two-up and two-down. It was only a few stops down a suburban line from the psychiatric hospital.
The insitution was set amongst green lawns, a neoclassical mansion that had been a bequest from an extinct lineage to charity and eventually found itself in the National Health Service. Behind the grand buildings was a purpose-built red-brick structure with small steel-framed windows that did not open. This was where the high-dependency patients were kept, under close supervision, so that they could not harm themselves: no sharp cutlery was allowed; nothing that could be used as a ligature; rooms were devoid of suspension points. Their restless minds had abandoned the real world, and they experienced terrifying hallucinations amidst a droning blackness that drowned out all rational thought. Some of them had been there for years, no treatment able to quench their destructive fires.
They were unable to lie still and endure treatment as other patients, so posed a risk to the nurses as well as to themselves. Although my first instinct was to be afraid of them, I had been taught during my training that they were more afraid of us. Sometimes they had good reason to resist: the tablets we coaxed into them dulled them and gave them uncontrollable movements, or they underwent horrible procedures under anaesthesia.
The thickest set of files belonged to a woman who had my surname. Or I had hers. At first I couldn’t recognise the faded, obese woman in the printed cotton gown who would not meet my eyes. She smelt of that red soap they kept at the sinks. She had no hairdresser, so her hair hung in a long grey curtain at her back.
There were five volumes of her records, each the weight of a concrete block. Volume One dated back thirteen years. As I opened it, I knew. She was who I had been hoping for on every train journey. It all fitted together: the dates, the address in Reading from where she had been detained. I felt dread and joy.
I read the psychiatrists’ notes. Mary had been tormented by delusions that her ex-husband was going to murder her and steal her daughter. She lost her belongings: her handbag, her Family Allowance book, her house keys – and blamed it on him. She had hallucinated about telephone calls in the middle of the night, about hearing threats. She had been terrified by a dead bird on the front path. Then he was found stabbed, and a social worker had discovered Mary with her five-year-old daughter, starving in a freezing house.
I unlocked her room and went in.
‘Mum,’ I said.
Her eyes were my eyes.
‘Beth! Beth! Is it really you?’
I was in her arms again.
©M Wallis 2022