Looking for Mozart’s cat

Carlo Roberts

There are times when people say they need to ‘get away from it all’. Have a holiday, a break; relax, unwind and laze under the sun. I’ve never enjoyed that kind of thing. I’ve taken holidays to ‘get into it all’, discover and investigate a new terrain and its inhabitants. Recently, though, I experienced another type of holiday. People around me were saying: ‘get away from me.’ I got away, I took a break. It was not a holiday that produced snaps or fond memories. In fact, one of its most memorable features is that I can’t remember a full ten days in the middle.

Last summer I spent one month in a psychiatric hospital after becoming manic and deluded. I had become terrified both of imagined and of real events in my life. It was my own decision to be admitted.

I arrived in the hospital grounds and made my way toward the short-stay ward – the equivalent of an Accident and Emergency Unit in a general hospital. As soon as I walked through the door I was confronted by a 50-year-old man covered in tattoos, who miraculously managed to spot a minuscule dot tattoo I have on my wrist. He pulled my wrist into better view and said: ‘Full stop, smallest spider in the world.’ Then he smiled, dropped my wrist and walked away content that nothing more needed to be said. These brief, often one-way conversations would become familiar. I was scantily interviewed by a junior-looking doctor who quickly decided I’d come to the right place. A nurse led me to a heavy, wooden door with an observation window in it. She unlocked the door and I was issued with a set of night clothes that would later become day clothes. At this point my father, who had shepherded me to the hospital, departed and I was free to explore my new environment.

I was keen to make contact with my fellow residents. Most said hello, some nodded or raised their eyebrows, others were suspicious, and a few were locked deep in thoughts far more interesting than the arrival of a new patient. A nurse noticed me wandering and directed me to the male lounge, telling me that there was a female lounge but that it was out of bounds at the moment. A solitary figure sat in one of the chairs. He had voluminous grey hair swept back over his head and a large, wavy grey beard. Sandwiched between these two growths was his face. His eyes were closed. He moved only to raise his cigarette to his mouth. He made sporadic utterances that sounded like one half of an argument. He was a noble-looking figure at first glance, but further scrutiny betrayed that he was massively dishevelled, his face a tortured topography. Rivulets and gulleys laced his tired and abraded face and culminated in an almighty orogeny between his thick grey eyebrows.

The walls were bare, apart from one poster listing the telephone numbers of various help and advice lines. The room contained a piano, a television, empty shelves, a Fifties exercise bicycle and some chairs. The piano looked a little beaten-up. On pressing the keys I found that only one in three produced a note and even that sounded as though it came from under water. The television was the focal point of the room, all chairs facing towards it. It was positioned in the corner of the room and set within its own safety harness: encased in a Fort Knox-style thick wooden cabinet which in turn was bolted into the surrounding wall. It wasn’t going anywhere. To get the most from a television you have to have access, visual and tactile, to its picture and controls, and this had been carefully considered. In front of the screen and part of the cabinet was a thick, dirty piece of perspex. This window into the television was about five inches from the screen. Various holes had been drilled into the perspex over the television’s control panel. An orange pencil was provided to stick through the holes and fish around for the channels and for the volume level desired. Between the perspex and the screen, under the holes, lay a vast pile of broken pencils that had started to encroach on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. There were two explanations for this unhappy pile of redundant, trapped half-pencils. First, the holes in the perspex had been drilled prior to the arrival of Channel Four and it was only the most gymnastic of pencils that would survive an attempt to reach that channel from the ITV hole. Second, many patients’ attempts to destroy the television had been thwarted by its armour, and they had settled for brutalising the innocent pencil. I switched on the television, and Saddam Hussein was being described as insane. I knew now I was in bad company.

The interior of the hospital had no nooks and crannies. It was not a place that could be explored, but one of colourless washable walls, indestructible furniture and locked doors. One knew one’s place. The only visible signs of habitation were the overflowing ashtrays periodically searched for dog-butts ripe for recycling. The longest corridor in the hospital, a good thoroughfare for shuffling and pacing up and down ad-absurdum, was washed every morning. In the centre of this very damp corridor were enormous, bright yellow police cones with the words ‘Caution Wet Floor’. It felt rather like being given a toothbrush which had an arrow on it and the words ‘use this end.’

This visually bland environment was home to bodies, postures, walks and faces that gave less away than the cracks and patches in the green paint that covered the hospital. Many patients appeared indifferent to their surroundings, having constructed capsules to stand in and tunnels to walk through. As people moved, their upper bodies lazily rested on their hips, arms limp, head lowered and the neck blending the back of the head into a rounded upper back. Everything appeared as extra baggage weighing on legs which, like clockwork, pushed the feet along the ground. Such movements were not helped by shirts that pinched the neck, trousers that flapped around the calves, shoes from another century, and much too small jackets that were more repair than jacket. These seemingly redundant bodies made an incongruous backdrop for the cascades of words that fell from clumsy lips. Words were not spoken. Sentences and ideas were blurted out. Intonation and stress arbitrary and monotonous. I learnt to be undisturbed when someone spent the entire conversation looking at my left shoe, or when I found myself making great efforts to put my head within sight of a conversant who was unconvinced of the merits of eye-contact. Most of these oddities result from drugs, tranquillisers especially. For some days I was bent over, my legs stiffened and bowed, and my hands dangled at my sides like those of a cowboy ready to pull his gun.

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