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Lovely Girls By Suzanne Conboy-Hill Amy watches the door; that grimy finger-stained gobbed-on portal to fleeting respite

from the chronic stink that makes her eyes water. She tries to shift her bottom, to hold her limbs still long enough to hover above the puddle of cold pee that has settled in a trough of rucked up rubber sheeting. She subsides again, arms threshing, mouth grimacing, spit flying, onto the wet sandpaper of the twill draw sheet. Edie, inches away in the next cot, lets out a guffaw and shrieks at the air, her hands grappling at something under the sheets. Amy thinks it is probably a turd as the night orderly had been too busy with his pet to do his rounds. She glances over at Julies cot in the corner and convulses in a spastic ripple of vicarious revulsion. Amy knows what is going on because she is smarter than they think, those people with their white coats, their blue epaulettes, and their shiny black, metal-heeled shoes that go clicking and clacking along the mop-damp, foot-stamped corridors. That and she has been a pet.

There is a sliver of enlightenment stealing in through the barred and encrusted godhigh windows of the institutions, but not as much as there will be soon. For now though, the smog of crass ignorance in these places is impenetrable to the evidence that would have plucked Amy and her like out of the gloom, re-written their histories, and expunged the references to subnormality and idiocy that legitimised their abandonment. Instead here she is, re-living the crawling nausea of repeated assaults while looking at poor Julies tiny frame, scrambled in its wet sheets where spots of blood are spreading forensically into the soaked up urine. Morning girls. They are not girls and what is morning in a place like this where constipated time passes in bullet-hard boluses of boredom? But this is Phyllis and Amy has a soft spot for Phyllis. She convulses again, this time with pleasure, and Phyllis waves. As she does, the waistband of her starched apron rides up with her arm, billowing out the bib so that she looks like a sailing ship. She pulls it back down again, fusses with the fastenings, then smooths over the crisp white sheet so it wraps sedately around the sea green pleats of her uniform. Phylliss arrival triggers a storm of howling, wa iling and clattering as the cot-bound patients seek her attention. Edie hurls the faecal missile she has excavated and it lands with a soft plop on the scuffed linoleum floor. Julie is not howling but she is sitting up; rocking and humming, twiddling the fingers of her left hand in front of her face and gouging at her eye with the thumb of her right. Dont do that, my lovely, or Ill have to give you sedation and you dont want that, do you? Big needle in your bum? Course you dont. Phyllis has lots of these one way conversations and does not seem to worry about the lack of response. She pushes Julies hands down and carefully hooks the right one into a leather restraint attached to the side of

the cot. Now Julie does howl and starts to hit her face with her free hand, but Phyllis has seen the shit on the floor. Mop! she shouts over her shoulder, and heads off towards the sluice to get a rag. We should care about this; we should be shocked and outraged, and we will be in time, but not now, not in 1963. In 1963, this place is a flagship of progress and it receives unctuous praise for its modern attitude to the subnormal from the political aristocracy who hope never to meet one of its dismal inmates. Amy knows it is a sham, but like others here who are witnesses, she cannot bear witness because she cannot speak. Her body has a brain that makes her look like a marionette in the hands of a four year old because Amy has cerebral palsy. But no one will appreciate that for another decade, so no one will ask her how she got pregnant in 1945. The ward door opens again and two men appear, trailing a clanking string of rusty wheelchairs with stained seats. It is bath time. Soon, all Phylliss girls are stripped naked, dumped into a chair each and trolleyed along the corridor to the industrial checkout of the bath room. There, a man approaches Edie to heave her out of her chair and deposit her in a vast tub just vacated by someone else. The murky water slops over the edge and pools in the cracks between the stone flags of the floor. Allyoop, lass, he says, his breath fogging briefly in the teeth-chattering chill. This is Derek and while Derek is not quite the full shilling, he is a High Grade; a patient savvy enough to be employed but not to notice he is never paid. He helps with general duties which, incredibly, include stripping and washing mute women Low Grades, insensate, sexually and intellectually oblivious. Except they are not, but again the few that could object will not be able to do so for many years and by then they will be numb. Not dumb any more, lacking communication and an understanding audience, but

numb of heart and will and soul, which will allow hell to freeze in their throats without expression. Amy knows she is Low Grade because she was told so on arrival. Wheres this one going? B32 with the other basket cases. Shes a Low Grade? Dead from the neck up, nothing in the attic. A proprietorial pause. Plenty going on in the cellar though, if you know what I mean. The orderly cast her a lingering, lascivious look that Amy understood well enough to know that it was deeply unwelcome. Her body failed her though; juddering and jigging, twitching and lunging by way of idiot confirmation, while her mind shrieked horrified impotence. One of her flailing limbs struck the orderly and he turned his gaze back to her from his barren paperwork. Hard eyes scanned her up and down and hard knuckles cracked across her face, streaking red blood smears from the tear made by his heavy signet ring. Youll behave yourself around me, Missy. Then he felt under her clothes, explored the breasts that had just begun to push out from her chest, and ran his fingers down into the soft new nest of sunlight pale pubic hair that had also just appeared. Youll behave yourself very well with me, he added, probing a little further and winking inclusively towards his colleague. And if he plays his cards right, Ill let him have a go too . So Amy discovered two things that day: first, that she was a Low Grade and of no account anywhere in this bleak, terrifying world; and second, that she had embarked on a career as an orderlys whore, a pet.

The girls are back, rattling into the ward to be parked around the immense wooden table at its centre. Amy is steered into a gap next to Maureen whose eyes glitter as if with constant amusement while she picks holes in her head and eats the trophies. Amy is beyond nausea,

which is fortunate because lunch has arrived and it is being dished out by Phyllis and a new probationer nurse. Who wants mash and peas? the probationer is asking over the hubbub of random squawks, hawks, smacks and slaps. No need to ask, love, Phyllis intervenes; her voice kindly, almost mumsy, they all have everything. And they do. Mash, mince, peas, rhubarb, custard, and a cup of tea. Except it is not in a cup, it is in the bowl along with everything else; a crude palette of organic slop slowly blending into a homogenous morass of choleric shade and consistency. Saves on washing up. Phyllis is nipping the tender bud of objection about to emerge from the round O of the probationers mouth. All goes down the same way. Go and feed Amy now, be sure she eats it all. Amy watches as the young woman approaches. She flinches when the spoon appears suddenly to the left of her involuntarily averted face and pushes into her mouth. Amy has been choked before by novices and then slapped for choking. She has spent two days tied, hungry as a street dog, to a pillar in the middle of the ward as punishment. Amy does not want to choke. But this girl is gentle. Her eyes are kindly, like Phylliss eyes, and she looks often to Phyllis as if for reassurance. Amy wonders if this is Phylliss daughter but they do not look much alike. If Amy could, she would say that Phyllis had the round, ruddy look of a middleaged Welsh woman for whom hard graft had been her lifelong companion, while this girl was slight with a daintiness about her. Instead of Phylliss faded cassock black crown, there was a powder puff of fair curls fluffing out from beneath her neat nurses cap. She your favourite, is she? Derek has sidled up to them and is giving the probationer a look he learned long ago. Amy knows that look and she propels the bowl out of the nurses

hand in a sudden paroxysm of disgust. She knows the look and she knows Derek. Oh yes, she knows Derek. Phyllis comes rushing over, shouting for mops and buckets and telling Derek to look sharp and get his backside moving; there are canteen trolleys to be shifted. Derek himself shifts from leery to laconic then mooches off, casting a vaguely hopeful glance over his shoulder at the three women. Phyllis is soothing the probationer and smearing gravy down her apron as she scrubs ineffectually at the mess with a handkerchief. You just wipe your eyes, Carrie, nothings broken, just a bit of dinner on the floor. She turns to Amy, You too, my lovely, and she reaches out to both of them, her hands momentarily resting on their shoulders and rubbing that comforting rub mothers employ as a universal healer. She looks at Amy and Carrie, My two beautiful girls. They all pause there for a tick of the clock that bridges a new moment when the truth will be known, and an old one when Amy barely knew it herself. A crash. Edies wheelchair has capsized, and the world ticks on. But Amy has seen something, remembered something; caught the tail of something that has been suppressed by the horror and tedium, nihilism and victimisation of life in the asylum, the safe place, the prison.

A deep darkness broken by a flood of light; a bed flooded by a sluice of hot, salty fluid. The light comes from a torch; the water from inside her, at first hot then cooling rapidly in the sharp cold of the tiled bathroom with its ranks of silent, drowning tubs. Amys body contracts, heaves and flails while a deep, deep pain turns her inside out and cascades more hot fluid out of her onto the rough sheet.

Dark faces flit in and out of the light as the torch is waved around. There is a hissed exchange that comes from another universe as tides of pain pull Amy in and out of consciousness. Get her knees out of the way. Well, hold the torch steady. Not up there, down here, stupid. Where do you think its coming from, her ear? Can I look? Piss off, moron! Another voice, softer. Ssh, youre frightening her. Then more loudly, Try to stay still, Amy love, so we can see what were doing. Hush your voice; do you want the Night Super down here? Jesus! Then Amy howls; a lupine cry from the soul that marks a primeval rite of passage. By the time the echoes have faded, a man unknowing becomes a father, a woman becomes a mother, and a mother loses a child.

Image adapted from John Donovans 1991 photograph, Friern Barnet Archive http://www.friernbarnet.com/picture/number2361.asp. Attempts to contact the website, the photographer, and the person who posted the image have been unsuccessful.

Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2014

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