Writers’ Group: Summers Past by Sue Hunter

Summers Past

Of course, it wasn’t by choice that I landed up in the mental hospital.  No one in their right mind would choose to go there. But at fifteen I needed a summer job because I wanted to buy a wireless of my own, and the local plastics factory wouldn’t have me.  So at 8 o’clock one July morning I clocked on at the gate-house and started six weeks employment as a scullery maid in the huge kitchens of the mental hospital on Dartford Heath.  I worked until 2.00 pm six a days a week, and was so proud of my little brown pay packet.  Each week it contained £2.4s.1d.  That included danger money, because I worked beside patients.  But big burly Joe and poor pathetic Millie were no threat.  I was more worried about how to chop up rhubarb into the right sized cubes. Huge sticks of the stuff came from the hospital farm, which was worked by the patients.  They also worked in the kitchens, laundry, gardens, and mess-rooms.  It must have been a great vision in its day, aiming to find a useful job for every inmate, but the vision had soured, the Poor Law buildings looked forbidding and out of place in the mid twentieth century, and I never met anyone, staff or patient, who was actually happy to be there.  Still, I got my radio, a lovely little Pye in a wooden frame; it had a wonderful tone, especially on the Home service.  And I had enough money left over to buy a pair of red shoes. Bliss.

The following summer I moved up, to kitchen maid.  I helped Maureen make the special diets: beef tea for the poorly patients, fish and chips on Friday for the Catholics, mashed potato, and rice pudding for the toothless ones, all cooked in vast boilers, and stirred with wooden paddles as big as me.  Then all the diets were duplicated as salt free or sugar free.  Maureen unexpectedly had to take two weeks off and I was left to struggle on with the diets, but cleverly cut corners by omitting salt and sugar from everything.

Next year I was promoted to mess-room maid, in the male mess room.  That must have been someone’s idea of fun, to have me at sweet seventeen serving breakfast to a load of far-from-home male nurses.  I loved it.  I took a particular shine to a Welsh nurse called Idris Griffiths.  I sent for the BBC Learning Welsh course, hoping to greet him one morning in his native tongue.  But I got no further than Hanner Ower Wedi Dai, which I believed at the time meant half-past two.  As I still knocked off at two o’clock I had, alas, no reason to use it.  An elderly patient called Horace helped with the washing up.  We got on fine.  He had discovered the secret of the universe and was eager to share it: it could all be explained by a system of numbers.  He gave everyone a number; I remember mine was quite a long one, which somehow included both my personality and prospects.  Horace loved birds.  I bought him a beautiful papier mâché bird from Woolworth’s and my mother began to wonder about my sanity. She hoped the lack of it wasn’t infectious.

My fourth and final summer I applied to work on the wards.  As an auxiliary nurse I was given a pale blue striped uniform.  Purple stripes indicated student nurses, of which there were many, from every conceivable commonwealth country.  Dark blue uniforms with sleeves rolled up were ward sisters.  Dark blue with sleeves rolled down was matron.  Apart from the sisters, I can’t remember seeing any qualified nurses.  Maybe they were the ones that got away.

I was assigned to a first floor unlocked ward of sixty female patients.  No-one ever explained to me what their problems were, and they were all treated the same.  The more able patients were supposed to go to Occupational Therapy in “The Block”.  These included Trotty, a rotund older lady with an insatiable appetite who was frequently being hauled out of the ward bread bin.  She divided her days between knitting and looking for her drawers.  Neither occupation yielded much success; she was trying to knit a glove, but always carried on knitting way after she should have decreased for the thumb and fingers.  One day she wandered off on the journey back from The Block and I was sent to hunt for her, in the hospital’s extensive grounds.  She was no great walker but I could see no sign of her on any of the paths or benches.  I found her, at last, in the summer house.  She’d evaded detection by lying down with her feet up on the bench, so that I couldn’t spot her from outside.

I tried to obey instructions with very little clear guidance.  I was told to take patients to the toilet, bath them, wash their hair, and cut their nails and left to get on with it.  I don’t think I made a very good job of it.  The only definite guidelines were about sterilising all cutlery to be used by staff and making all beds with envelope corners and the blankets turned back in a very particular way.  These were inspected much more diligently than the patients’ hair or toe nails.  One Sunday morning, when I had to make all sixty beds on my own, I felt that my back would never be straight again.

There were two ward sisters, on separate shifts; one was a normal human being who seemed tired and dispirited, sad perhaps at not being able to organise the ward properly.  The other was a fierce woman who made it quite clear that the whole set up was there for her benefit and for her favourite patient, a pretty young woman who was always with her in the kitchen or office.  This patient was the only one who had a private room – the now redundant padded cell at the end of the ward.  The others slept in two straight rows, with a locker between each bed to mark their private space.

One lady in her early forties who had pre-senility could only say “It’s funny now,” with a puzzled smile.  Another was able to chat normally, but had no-one to talk to.  So one afternoon I took her home on the bus to tea with my family.  She enjoyed her tea but insisted on calling me “Nurse” in spite of my mother’s firm comment, “at home we call her Sue.”  She told us that on the day war broke out it was her 11th Birthday, and her mother committed suicide. So the girl was committed to a mental home.  She couldn’t get out unless someone was willing to sign for her.  The Mental Health Act 1963 changed that. I hope she got out eventually.  A small, silent woman called Helen always froze when she was dressing in the morning.  As she stepped into her pants she would go rigid, with one leg on the ground and one in the air.  No amount of shouting or pushing on the part of the Nurse on duty would shift her.  Later, when I was at university, idly flicking through a friend’s psychology books and glancing at the pictures, I saw a photo of a man in exactly Helen’s position, holding his trousers out, immobile, one foot on the ground, one leg raised.  It shocked me to realise that Helen’s problem was an identifiable condition, it had a name.  Maybe it also had a treatment.

Some evenings I was sent down to help on the ground floor locked ward, where the patients were all demented.  Trying to get fractious old ladies to bed, I tried reasoning with them, until I was sometimes as much aware of the tiger under the bed as they were.  There was a routine inspection every night at midnight, when it was expected that patients should all be in bed in clean nighties.  That was an awful lot of nighties.  Staff on this ward had a solution – the enuretic old ladies were put to bed naked and the nice clean nighties saved for the midnight hour.  One night I was told to sit on one patient’s bed to stop her from climbing out: she was desperate to go and cook the evening meal for her family.  I offered to do it for her, and she looked at me, as confusion momentarily lifted, and said, “Don’t be silly.”  Sitting on her bed, I solemnly vowed that I would never, ever let anyone of mine go into one of those places.  Goodness knows how I would have prevented it.  Happily the world has moved on in the intervening years, and now when I visit friends and relations in Residential and Nursing Homes I silently give thanks for the tasteful curtains, carpets, single bedrooms and mostly gentle staff.

That summer’s experience made me value sanity above all things, while being acutely aware of what a thin line divides sanity from madness.  I have never been able to understand how anyone could risk losing their reason, even for a moment, through drink or drugs.  And my future husband had to promise to love me whether sane or demented, as well as for richer or poorer.

How could I have guessed, when I first started saving for my wireless, that the experience of four teenage summers would have such an impact on the rest of my life.

Sue Hunter

Just in Case by John Herman

Just In Case

This is the story of a life distraught but not destroyed; a pageant played in sequence in the eyes of your imagination.

So first imagine this; a rich evening of late summer. A spacious, gracious room whose windows open onto a garden terrace where in the afternoon the sun had warmed those who chose to take tea, or read, or admire  with quiet delight the flowers in the richness of their beauty. Now all are gathered; the comfortable chairs describe an arc to face the light of the setting sun. This is a literary evening and a poet stands and prepares to read his work. All is quiet, the chatter stilled, each guest attentive, ready to be stirred by the chosen word and the apt phrase. The poet rises and begins to read. He knows the importance of eye-contact so his eyes rove here and there across the rows of chairs and faces; he knows no-one, for he is a visitor here. All are listening, for he reads well and speaks his words alive, but in all the unknown faces, one face attracts – a woman sitting in the far corner of the room. Her gaze never falters; she engages with his art and seeks intent to draw into her soul the beauty of the poetry she hears. He will not forget her.

Now, it is autumn; the orchards are laden and the vibrant colours of the trees line the forest paths. They walk together, the poet and his girl – for this is how he thinks of her, even though she is really a woman of mature years. Before, we only saw her seated, but now we see that she is quite tall. She has wind-tousled auburn hair and long legs which easily stride with him so that they are able to choose a pace with which both are at ease and comfortable. They are comfortable in each other’s presence too. There is beauty all around, but beauty in their conversation too; they speak eagerly from the heart and tenderly divulge, without haste and without dissembling, their inmost thoughts and dreams and fears – yet there is no fear here for each finds security in the profound acceptance of the other.  Time passes imperceptibly and has for them no consequence . They walk around the lake and an autumnal gust ripples the surface; there is a thin threat of winter in the sunset skies.

Now winter has come and the dark days and stormy nights reflect the turbulence of the poet’s soul.  For him this was no slow drift from autumn’s bounty into winter’s chill, the almost imperceptible loss of a couple of minutes of precious sunlight each day. No, for him this was a sudden, perfect storm, all the more ferocious because unexpected. Where is she now, this girl with whom he had felt so much at ease and whom he had begun to love? Dark, frantic thoughts had knifed his mind; perhaps she is ill, or injured or even (here panic grips him tightly like a claw) – dead. No, no, not so, her friends are reassuring; she is well, yet does this news bring healing? Not at all! This is not the work of some dread circumstance; this is her choice to fracture what had been their happiness. But why has summer’s promise and autumn fruitfulness proved barren in the winter storm? He trawls his memory for some injurious action or offensive word – but no avail. If only he could find her, hold her, soothe her, listen to her sadness. He would wipe her tears and cradle her until her weeping ceased and they might love again. If only…….!

Where would she be tonight?  A sudden wild thought of a summer sunlit lounge springs to birth and, no sooner thought, than turned to action. He rises in haste, takes his coat and turns the key. He will go again to that remembered room of strangers and a friend he had not yet known, that precious first encounter just a few short months ago. Careless of the falling snow he will go again tonight in hope – just in case…….
John Herman

Writers Group: 1940’s Oxfordshire by Edna Sparkes

1940s Oxfordshire

I was born in Oxfordshire seventy years ago
Into a rural idyll, where the pace of life was slow
I used to roam the bluebell woods
And walked through fields for hours
With seas of poppies, ox-eye daisies
And cobalt blue cornflowers

I used to watch the skylark soaring in the blue
Above a sea of rippling corn with thistles poking through
I fetched fresh milk (still warm!)
From the farm across the way
I’ve never tasted such delight – not even to this day!

We’d joy-ride upon tractors with a hard, spring-loaded seat
And take care near the thresher
As it spewed it’s bales all neat
Then as the farmers harvested they always had a gun
To catch poor rabbits unawares when they began to run!

But it wasn’t always summer
Times were harsh when north winds blew
I trudged through snow my height
Along the grass tracks that I knew
But nothing stopped – we carried on
“Never mind the weather
We’re all in it together.”

Edna Sparkes


Writers’ Group: Finding Charlie by Pam Parrish

Finding Charlie

My father, Fred Smith, was born in 1900, the third child of a family of eight, five boys and three girls.  Dad’s story, or fragments of it, came out over the years, supplemented by various members of his family, and it helped me to try to understand his treatment of my brother and me.

He was a bad tempered, tetchy and at times, violent man of whom we were both justifiably terrified.  His early childhood was one of terrible poverty and neglect and those eight little children suffered badly.  My grandfather was, in Edwardian terms, a real rotter.  A ship’s hairdresser by trade, he was a colourful character with his flowing curly red hair and whiskers.

My grandmother, Minnie, was totally infatuated with him and despite her parents trying to keep them apart, she had his first baby when only fifteen years old.  They married when she was 18 and then the poor girl had a baby almost every year.  Each time he returned from the sea he left her pregnant.  The whole family was born and raised in a tenement flat facing Regent’s Park, ironically the home of millionaires now.

The grinding poverty and hardship of this family can only be imagined.  It all came to a tragic end for Minnie when she died in mysterious circumstances at the age of only 32 – her youngest baby being just 9 months old.  She was, I suspect, totally worn out.

My dad told me how he was dumped on his father’s brother one Sunday morning by his dad who never returned.  My dad never got over this, although he was lucky as he escaped the orphanage, faring better than his siblings. His uncle was a baker in Southall and my dad was worked to death as a baker’s boy delivering bread at six in the morning before school.

My father’s nearest brother, who was a year older than him, was a gifted musician and was sent away to the Kneller Hall Army School of Music to be a band boy. What happened to the rest of the family I was never to know. My father was not to see this brother, Charlie, but was always talking about him and how he would find him one day.

One Sunday in 1940, when I was 11, we were listening to the radio.  The Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra was playing and an item was announced called ‘The Three Brass Bells’, arranged for trombones.  One of the soloists was Charlie Smith.  My dad nearly collapsed with shock and excitement.  Sure enough, he had found his beloved brother at last.

The BBC arranged a reunion and this musician uncle came into our lives.  What a character he was, very like my grandfather, I should imagine – funny and a real showman.  He became a member of Henry Hall’s Dance Band and I was taken to the Wood Green Empire in London to see him play – a great treat during the war.  Ultimately he played with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and, as before, I went to see him play.  I also found a whole new set of cousins, as he was married with three children.  It was amazing that such a talent could emerge from such a background and how one brother was so fulfilled and the other, my father, so bitter and angry.

Charlie once again disappeared and we never saw him again after the war, or had contact with the family.  What happened to all those brothers and sisters I will never know.

Pam Parrish

Writers’ Group: Images in Red and Gold by John Neville

Images in Red and Gold

Late September shadows lengthen
Summer’s sun begins to fade
Dew descends on lawns and pasture
Drenching every leafy glade

Nature flaunts its flawless beauty
Changing seasons’ gifts unfold
Displaying trees in riotous colour
Images in red and gold

Jewelled ‘webs adorn the hedgerow
Shimmering in the morning sun
Harbingers of winter’s harshness
Heralding the frosts to come

Don’t despair the summer’s passing
Savour autumn’s bounteous gifts
Enjoy with rapt anticipation
Tinted leaves and swirling mists

John Neville

Writers’ Group: Winter Magic by John Neville

Winter Magic

November’s winter gloom, lightened only by bonfire night with its smells of mulled wine and scorched blue touch paper, is an evocation of a childhood yearned for throughout our adult lives.  Soon it will be Christmas.  Thoughts of the approaching festive season fill our hearts with yet more nostalgia – memories that stay forever.  With any luck, snow will grace the landscape covering all man-made imperfections, dusting trees in magical splendour.

A garden in winter is pure theatre.  Lean hedges and bare grass create a stage for the low winter sun to play a leading role.  Long shadows stride across lawns; deep, dark shade possesses sinister corners; and side-lighting glances across the bleached bones of summer past.  It’s time now to write the script and cast the players for next year’s performance.

John Neville

Writers’ Group: Moment of Clarity by Imogen Matthews

A Moment of Clarity

Time is stagnant through the glass doors
Where old men and women sit wasted in comfy chairs
Waiting to be fed, waiting for bed
Waiting for what
Commander Jenkins, back now bent, murmurs to himself.
Edith greets every visitor
Maybe this one has come for her.

Quickly I pass through this waiting room and see her
Sitting apart, gazing through the grimy window, nodding a little.
I call her name
She slowly turns, her unfocused eyes searching mine,
Her bony speckled hand, twig-like fingers curl
Holding tight, like a baby’s.
I talk, she smiles, I talk, she tires,
Closing her eyes more often
I gently ease my hand away.

Then in a swift fluid movement
I pull my coat round me
And stride out on strong legs to the door
Where I pause,
Turn back
To see her,
To see me
Sitting there
Waiting.  Waiting.

Imogen Matthews