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An excerpt from

The Last Truth

Brian Thomas-Peter

Mrs Myerson placed the bottle of milk in the fridge, having dismissed ideas that the noise that had woken her was a branch of a tree falling on the house, or a gang of burglars that had invaded. How silly she could be. In any case, the rich food offered at dinner at her friend’s house brought on the inevitable indigestion and this would prevent her from getting back to sleep without some assistance. A cup of warm milk and some time reading was required. With cup in hand she came out of the kitchen and looked across the hall, it became clear to her immediately what the noise had been. She had forgotten to close the living room door and the drafts of the old place had caused the door to bang. It had happened often in the life of this house. How many times had she told the children to close the doors, and not to slam. She chided herself for being old and forgetful and walked towards to the door.

From inside the darkness of the living room, through the crack of the open door, Tad watched her approach. The door handled rattled and the door closed suddenly. It was a surprise to see the door close and he startled at the noise of it shutting. It was disappointing. Sweat had formed on his forehead and the handle of the knife, but it was not anxiety that caused his shirt to stick to him. He looked around in the darkness for his shoes and decided to wait in the living room for the woman to go to sleep before looking in the kitchen. He was not finished with this house. He might drink from that milk bottle from which she poured the drink she was sipping at this very minute, upstairs just a few feet away. He had the knife, could do or take whatever he wanted.

Mrs Myerson headed back to bed. She noted a faint smell, reminding her of her son’s gym kit years ago and how he and his sister scrambled up these very stairs when they came home from school. If not for the garden and the memories, she mused, she would have left the house years ago. It was really too much for her and now the living room needed to be aired. She tried to force into memory the task of opening the living room windows tomorrow. There was always too much to remember.

***

From the dining room, with her back against the window Jenny looked through the Plexiglas doors into the dayroom. It was a safe place to be. Large and bright with views out and in. The table in front of her kept some physical barrier between her and others, and the remaining space to the door was unobstructed. A woman shuffled through the doors and approached her. She moved slowly towards Jenny talking in a continuous stream of syllables, tapping at a pace too fast for words to keep up.

Sorry Rosemary, I don’t have any cigarettes for you today. Jenny smiled broadly. It was what she always asked for and what Jenny always said. Rosemary continued to talk. Staccato gibberish spilled from her with an insistence. Sit with me, Rosemary. Rosemary sat on the edge of the plastic chair and began tapping her mouth with her forefinger. Sorry, I just don’t have any cigarettes. Rosemary allowed her hand to fall away from her mouth and the monotone stream of syllables came to an end. For a few moments, she rested. Jenny arranged the dominos on the dining room table and invited Rosemary to play. It was hopeless, but did not matter.

Why do you spend so much time with Rosemary? asked the primary nurse from the doorway. Rosemary did not notice. Her leg began bouncing on her toe and both hands rolled an imaginary marble between thumb and forefinger. No one has the patience to spend time with her, but you do. Why is that? Jenny had watched the young nurse circling, waiting to swoop in and engage her in some meaningful way. The plan to ward off patients and staff with Rosemary’s company had failed her on this occasion.

Because no one has any time for her. I don’t see anyone spending time with her, so I thought I would. Jenny smiled at the nurse, who acknowledged the act of generosity with a flash of the eyebrows. How long has she been here? asked Jenny.

I’m not supposed to talk about patients to other patients, but it has been some time. Rosemary’s hand came to her mouth and tapped her puckered lips. Plaintive old eyes appealed to the young nurse. He ignored her. We introduced a no-smoking policy right through the hospital about three years ago but some of our patients have never adjusted to it.

Three years! said Jenny, She has been here that long? She looked at Rosemary and reached across the table to stroke her arm. Poor thing, it’s probably the only pleasure she had.

The primary nurse nodded. That’s probably true, although I don’t smoke so I have never really thought of it like that. He paused. Rosemary came to us from the old hospital when they took it down. That was nearly ten years ago. A few of the patients from there couldn’t cope with care in the community, so they came back to live in the acute wards. We don’t have any long-stay wards, other than the secure unit.

Three years is long stay. Jenny recalled counting the homeless men in the shelters and under the railway arches, and wondered if there were actual people from the hospital that she had seen and tabulated. The relentless wandering and foraging of large numbers of dispossessed men and women, in and out of hospitals, hostels and prisons had been a constant topic of conversation at work. It was all wrapped in the contempt and bitterness of a class war, already lost. She had come to understand what care in the community had meant for the people affected, but her face flushed with the embarrassment of realizing she had not really known; not in the way that sharing an acute psychiatric ward with them teaches you. How many people were in the old hospital?

It was before my time, so I don’t exactly know, but it was a huge place, in the thousands of patients, and staff. It was its own little town and some people never left it once they were in.

So where did they all go? Jenny knew.

Her Primary Nurse replied, Most of the patients in those places didn’t really need to be in hospital, but....

What about the ones that did? Jenny’s gaze fell upon him.

I don’t know, said the nurse. You say like it was my fault.

Jenny understood his complaint immediately. She had forced an admission of inexperience and youth. She had spoken to him like he was responsible; gathering up all the suffering of the cold lonely men she had counted, the lost years of Rosemary and the vacant women in the day area, and handed it to him. The shame of all that was wrong with mental health services was embodied in his naive complacency. There was nothing wilful in it and yet she had kicked the dog because it did not know. She shrivelled.

It isn’t your fault. Sorry, that was unfair.

Don’t apologize, the young man said. Everyone has a right to an opinion.

No I’m not…not like that. I know you are trying to be kind to me. Jenny looked around as if searching for words But this place is getting to me. He looked at her, and Rosemary tapped her feet. I have been over my story so many times with people in here. The psychologist, social worker, three different trainees and three different nurses. I have only been here five days!

His eyebrows came together. Who were the other nurses? He asked.

Does it matter! They are all the same to me. The contempt for these people came to the surface too easily to resist any longer. Any hope she harboured of allowing this young man to feel significant to her ebbed away each time they spoke. She wanted to turn it off but could not find a way to get back to being herself.

Well, said the nurse, I came to tell you that the psychiatrist is planning to see you today, if he comes in.

Doesn’t he know if he is coming in? Or does it not matter that I am waiting to have my life back.

The young nurse exhaled heavily. We have seven days from admission to decide if you can be interviewed further by the police. We are trying to get you through it. I know it’s hard. He should be here after lunch. He waited for another thrust but Jenny was silent. Rosemary began tapping a domino on the table while touching her puckered lips. The young nurse left the dining room and Jenny tried to ignore the tapping. She had to clear her head and get ready for the afternoon appointment. It would be the important one. All the others meant nothing. Jenny stood and edged around the table of dominos. Rosemary’s hand caught her wrist gently and Jenny looked down on her.

Rosemary said, He likes you, you know. He does. You could be kinder to him. You really could. Jenny looked in amazement at the old woman whose words momentarily caught up with the rhythm of her tapping. Have you got a cigarette?