Chapter no 13

The Silent Companions

These drugs were stronger than the last. She felt them suck at her bloodstream as she lumbered down the corridor beside Dr Shepherd. Shapes and faces melted beneath her eyes. Everywhere she turned were the slack jaws and wet mouths of idiots. They shrieked like witches, looming large in her vision then swirling away again.

Hideous phantoms haunting the place as surely as the stench of piss. ‘It is most beneficial, don’t you think?’ he asked. ‘Walking gets the

blood flowing. I see no reason why you might not enjoy the same benefits as the other patients, under my supervision. Nothing has been proven against you, after all.’

Another of his ‘helpful’ prescriptions. It was more of a penance than a treat. Imprisonment was never the real punishment: it was the people you were stuck with. Lunatics were the worst; jabbering, yammering, moaning. Some couldn’t even control their bladders. That’s why she’d thrown her dinner over the old woman and given the nurse a black eye along with the plate. It was nothing personal. The only way to get privacy, and a quiet sleep, was to be branded ‘dangerous’. It meant the dark, padded cell for a few days, but also stronger medication. A fair trade, she thought.

‘But I must take care I do not tire you too much. I hoped we might have a little conversation once we are back in your room with the slate, Mrs Bainbridge? If it is agreeable?’

Agreeable? She had a notion these manners were a device of his, constructed to reawaken the social, genteel side of her character. If there still was one.

Aromas served as landmarks. Burnt porridge told her they were near the eating hall; soap, cold water and fear signalled the bathrooms. When she smelt musty bedclothes and felt her feet squeak against floorboards, she knew she was back in her own cell. It was almost like coming home.

The world was hazy as she slumped onto her bed. White walls rippled. Dr Shepherd offered her the slate and chalk. When she tried to take them, her hands seemed to waver before her eyes, slowed by the drugs.

‘Do remain lying down if you need to, Mrs Bainbridge. So long as you can write, you may pick any position you choose.’

There was no choice about it – she didn’t have the energy to rise. ‘Several interesting developments have occurred in your story. I

would like to concentrate upon one for the present. You have written that your mother died of the typhus. Your father, I think, predeceased her?’ She nodded. ‘And how did he die?’

Pa’s face tried to manifest itself before her but she wouldn’t let it.

She clamped her eyes shut.

‘Mrs Bainbridge? Do you remember how he died?’ The chalk grated as she wrote, No.

He cleared his throat. ‘I expected that might be the case. You see, Mrs Bainbridge, I am of the opinion that your current silence was not simply triggered by the fire at The Bridge. I believe this has been building for a good while. In fact, I believe the malady may have started with your father.’

Her eyes sprang open. She turned her head on the pillow, stared at his wavering shape.

‘Yes. I am sorry to tell you that the manner in which your father died was highly distressing. It occurred less than two months after your brother’s birth.’ She heard him rustle paper, although she could not focus clearly. ‘The police were involved. You yourself made a statement.’ A pause. ‘Shall – shall I read it to you?’

It was as though he had frozen every drop of blood in her veins. She could not move, she only blinked, but he seemed to take that for assent.

‘“Elisabeth Livingstone of Livingstone’s Match Factory, Bow, London. Twelve years of age. I am the daughter of the deceased. I have been assisting the workers in the factory since I was a girl. On

the afternoon of August 2nd, about three of the clock, I was tying bundles of splints when I perceived a fire on the factory floor. It was a small fire, located beside the circular saw. I did not see how the fire began. Knowing the danger of fire in a factory, I ran to extinguish it, but I did not have a blanket or sand to assist me. I tried to beat the flames with my hands and was injured. I do not believe I called out, ‘Fire.’ Another worker may have done so. Shortly after, I saw the deceased running towards me with a bucket of water. The water sloshed from the bucket and he must have slipped. I was tending to my injury. I heard a sound like a shoe squeaking, then a clang. I looked up and realised that the deceased had fallen into the circular saw.”’

He let a respectful moment pass. How she wished he would not –in the silence she heard it again, that dreadful sound.

‘Quite a horror for any person to witness, I should think,’ he said at last. ‘Let alone a girl of twelve years.’

He had no idea.

Dr Shepherd began to pace. She was relieved: the pad of his steps replaced the roaring inside her ears.

‘From your story, I gather this event somewhat unbalanced your mother – as well it might. Do you remember?’

She nodded.

‘Was she perhaps – almost – mad, with grief?’

Ah, Ma, loyal to the end. How she loved him. She saw him at his worst, yet still she loved him – loved him far more than she loved Elsie.

Another nod.

‘And do you not think, Mrs Bainbridge, that the same unfortunate circumstance may have affected you in a similar manner? That there may have been a tendency, within your family? Don’t forget, you suffered a terrible loss too. And more followed.’

The irony was that she had not lost her mind completely. Every feeling, all that was good and pure in her world had been mangled, and she was still stronger than those wretches pissing themselves out in the corridor. She knew it.

‘Madness, as we call it, manifests itself in many ways. People do not always wail and shriek as you say your mother did. But it does seem to run in families, I have observed, particularly through the

female line. Hysteria – womb to womb. Diseased blood will out. There is no hiding from it, I am afraid.’

Slowly, she let the slate and chalk drop from her hands.

She could feel the past stealing up on her, the way a river inches up its banks in the rain; gradually lapping at her chin, filling her mouth.

There is no hiding from it, I am afraid.

He was right about that. Now she had begun to tell her story, there was no hiding at all.

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