In the Interim
Anne Goodwin's short fiction has been published online and in print. Her short story The Good News was published by Amarillo Bay in 2009. She is in the process of revising two novels: Underneath and Sugar and Snails. Her writing website is at annegoodwin.weebly.com.
One morning in late June, in the year before the century turned, the world stopped spinning for a moment, and Melissa Montgomery stepped off.
It had been a tough year. In January, her father had died. After a seventy-year love affair with cigarettes, his death was not unexpected, but Melissa had been close to him and not quite ready to watch him depart. In February, her best-friend, Gillian, the girl with whom she had shared handkerchiefs and wine gums since primary school, locked herself in the bathroom and swallowed five packets of aspirin and a bottle of gin. In March, they buried her mother. A blessing, some might say, after the gut-wrenching agony of widowhood. But still. And so on to April and the demise of the small business she had run from home, designing and printing letterheads and compliment slips for other small businesses run by other women from home. Gone bust through universal access to clipart and four months of inattention.
May arrived. The daffodils had come and gone. New lambs had been bleating in the fields for weeks. Another death would have been obscene at that time of the year.
In May, Melissa's husband became a father. Sadly this event did not coincide with Melissa becoming a mother. Melissa had never been pregnant.
He found her a studio flat in a good part of town and erected a cot in the room where she used to file her tax returns. It had indeed been a tough year and, only halfway through, Melissa had had enough.
She landed in one of those Victorian edifices that had for several years been in the process of spilling its long-term occupants out to community care. Constructed in the middle of the previous century, with a proud facade of yellow brick and fine views over the surrounding countryside, it had been intended as a retreat from the pressures of the newly-industrialized world. Like a grand country house, it had had its own farm, a small chapel with stained-glass windows, and a theatre with mosaic tiles framing the stage.
Later, when psychiatric hegemony decreed the cultural life of the inmates irrelevant, the theatre was filled with large trestle tables where the patients could earn pocket money packing Christmas cards in cellophane bags. By Melissa's time such menial work was considered more exploitative than therapeutic and, besides, the nation's requirements for repetitive industry had all been outsourced to India. The derelict theatre was boarded up at the behest of Health and Safety, and an executive housing estate stood on the site where the farm had been. The fine views over green fields, which had so tranquilized the original inmates, had been replaced by the roofs of the suburbs, and the chapel was now a health club. On the day of Melissa's arrival, the hospital authorities were beginning negotiations with a developer who would transform the yellow brick building into a luxury apartment block.
Melissa provided the hospital with a conundrum just as challenging as the transition to community care. An old-fashioned case of catatonia, the doctors were saying. It was a sign of how far she'd stepped off the world that Melissa didn't bristle at being labelled old-fashioned, she who had prided herself in keeping up to date well after the first flecks of grey appeared in her hair. She hardly registered the excitement in their voices as they reminded each other that a presentation like hers had rarely been seen on the premises since the advent of chlorpromazine in the fifties. Experts and students arrived to see for themselves the woman who didn't flinch when prodded and who, should they take her hand and raise it above her head, would remain in position until they took pity on her and returned it to her side.
She was paraded at their weekly case conferences, where the psychiatrists liked to illustrate what they termed her failure of volition. They were wrong. It required a supreme effort of will not to wipe the dribble from her chin, she who had always taken such trouble with her appearance. Great self-control not to resist her bowels' urge to loosen in the chair where she sat, should the nurse forget to escort her to the toilet. Tremendous determination, should some joker arrange her standing on one leg, in her refusal to lower her foot, in her resolve not to topple over. Having stepped off the world, the work of staying there was exhausting.
Twice a week, they walked her up the stairs to the psychotherapy department. Adwoa, her therapist, had her degree certificates displayed in plastic frames on her office wall. She had been christened Amanda but had changed her name to the Ghanaian for Peace after her son had been killed in a hit-and-run. Around the same time she had joined a choir and begun wearing lurid silk scarves draped around her shoulders. None of this she shared with Melissa, of course.
Some days Adwoa sat quietly in an armchair opposite her patient and echoed her silence. Other days she spoke gently about the events of January to June. Her father and then her mother. The best friend whose undisclosed despair called into question the significance of a history of shared handkerchiefs and wine gums. The business through which she had channelled her creativity. Her husband. His baby. Their home. It took a valiant effort of will on Melissa's behalf to keep her mind hidden in the face of such a litany of loss.
As the year progressed, the hospital community developed another preoccupation, alongside planning for its own extinction and analyzing their surprise catatonic. They were preparing for the millennium meltdown, for that moment just past midnight on January first when all the computers would reset themselves to zero, and the electronic world would come to an end. All leave had been cancelled and one of the abandoned wards had had to be reopened to make space for the special supplies that were ordered in: three hundred hurricane lamps, twenty camping stoves, five crates of baked beans, and a safe to store the extra medication.
Despite the anxieties, on Melissa's ward the patients were encouraged to stay up to see in the new millennium. Melissa was placed in front of the TV, ready for the toast, with a glass of sherry in her raised hand. When the lights didn't blink and the computer in his office didn't explode, the charge nurse poured everyone another sherry. He took advantage of his charges' intoxication to suggest that, come springtime, a camping trip might be just the thing for the ward. It would be a shame for all those lamps and stoves and cans of beans to go to waste. Drunk on his own enthusiasm, for it was hard to be creative in that place, he even asked Melissa to sign up.
Melissa shook her head. "Not bloody likely."
The charge nurse rushed away to write Melissa's words in her case notes.
While the doctors and students and experts were disappointed to lose their celebrated catatonic, Melissa's return to life, alongside the triumph over the millennium bug, left the hospital authorities with just the one major project upon which to focus their brains and budgets. The deal with the property developer was soon sealed and they informed the health minister that the asylum would be closed within the year.
In preparing herself to step back into the world, Melissa talked to her therapist about her plans. First she would need to go shopping for the new season's clothes. Then she would speak to her siblings about a stone for her parents' graves. She would visit Gillian's mother, who had always been fond of her, but whom she hadn't felt able to face since the funeral. She would gather up all her courage to go round to the house she had shared with her husband to negotiate a fairer division of their joint property. When all that was done, she would think about work. She had an inkling that she might attach herself to the funeral business. The market for woodland burials was surely just about to burst forth.
Adwoa felt honored to bear witness to Melissa's journey back to life. It wasn't her place to give an opinion, but she was able to provide a sounding board for Melissa's ideas. To ask questions. To encourage. To nod her head in support.
She didn't shirk from urging Melissa to speculate on what had prompted her transformation. Whether it were the birth of the new year, new century, the new millennium inspiring her with hope for the future. Whether it were the prospect of a holiday under canvas, terrifying her into resuming control. Melissa listened politely as Adwoa tried to explore these themes, but she wasn't forthcoming with hypotheses of her own. Perhaps it was sufficient that she was on the road to recovery. Perhaps there was no need for her to know why.
Melissa was discharged to her flat at the same time as a batch of long-term hospital residents moved into a sheltered housing scheme at the other side of town. For the first time in years they would have a bedroom of their own.
In her studio flat, Melissa also had her own room again. She went to sleep making lists in her head of the paperbacks and photographs, LPs and CDs, she wanted to be sure to bring back from the place where she had shared a room with her husband.
With the confidence inspired by the memory of the degree certificates on Adwoa's wall, Melissa emailed her brother in Australia, her sister in France. She bought a card with a picture of a field full of poppies and scribbled a note to Gillian's mother. Then she picked up the phone and rang what used to be her home.
Ignoring the sound of the baby's cry as best she could, Melissa arranged a time to go round to the house when her husband would be alone. Then she went shopping for a figure-hugging suit. A pair of heels that made her legs look as if they would never end.
In the mirror, she practiced holding herself still. Expressionless. Putting herself in position with her head held high. And keeping it there. As she had done in the hospital.
It took an enormous act of will to walk down the street which, only a year before, had held her retreat from the pressures of the industrial world. Her asylum. Her sanctuary.
She allowed herself the twitch of a smile when her husband answered the door. She followed him into the kitchen and stood quite still while he scrabbled among packs of formula milk and jars of puréed parsnip for the coffee. She didn't blink when she noted the household had switched to a different brand.
Melissa watched, immobile, as her husband spooned granules into stoneware mugs. Kept her head high as he took a carton of milk from the fridge.
She remained motionless when he turned his back to pour water into the mugs. Then just as he put down the kettle, she moved.
She picked up the cast-iron frying pan from the hook on the wall. She swung it round and brought it down on her husband's head. As he staggered, she swung the frying pan again. Brought it down on his head. Again.
When he crashed to the floor, she picked up a knife from beside the chopping board and pushed it inwards and upwards under his ribs. Then she rinsed her hands under the cold tap at the sink and strolled through the living room to choose her paperbacks and photographs, her LPs and CDs.