Untold Stories

Alan Bennett

There is a wood, the canal, the river and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.

‘No,’ I say confidently and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.

‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’

Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.

‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’

‘No,’ I say and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one of the family. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it.

‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’

‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’

The ‘this’ that it hadn’t been like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with relative suddenness. In the space of a month or so she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the weeks passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion: the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown and Dad found her wandering in the street whence she could only be fetched back into the house after loud resistance.

Occurring in Leeds where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.

My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad had never even had an allotment, but in his childhood he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding, which he always talked of as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folks visiting.’ The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. A few years after they moved I wrote a television play, Sunset across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62 bearing them away to a new life the wife calls out: ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ That had always been the dream. Now Dad was being told that it was their longed for escape that had brought this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly, he would not believe it.

In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending move. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted, so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms still with all the decorating to be done.

‘Your Mam’ll be better when I’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.

My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of Mam’s list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that the stair-carpet was only the beginning of it but my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days. Mam seemed scarcely to notice and when, stair-carpet or no stair-carpet, the clouds did not lift my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.

Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired – he had all the time in the world to care.

‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs – the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living-room because there was someone there.

‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.

‘Tell anybody what?’

‘Tell them what I’ve done?’

‘You haven’t done anything.’

‘But you won’t tell them?’

‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door then wrote ‘TALKING’ in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.

As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.

‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.

‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’

‘They can see you.’

‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’

‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’

It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.

‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say. ‘Be quiet.’

A play could begin like this, I used to think – with a man on-stage, sporadically angry with a woman off-stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the offstage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.

Or set it in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on-stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on-stage? Violence, probably.

Her fears – of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected – were ordinary stuff. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her dread not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors ... Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not even getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.

Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.

It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance it was hard not to think her delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them, the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naive of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together did not constitute normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her conduct hardest to bear.

‘I wouldn’t care’ Dad would say, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’

‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he said, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’

The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.

Few nights passed uninterrupted and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the carpark that she said was watching the house.

How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of ... what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how inexplicable the world had become.

‘We used to be such pals,’ she’d say to me, shaking her head and refusing to say any more because the radio was listening, instead creeping upstairs to the cold bedroom to perch on one of the flimsy bedroom chairs, beckoning me to stay silent and do the same, as if this were a satisfactory way to spend the morning.

And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depression was not madness. It would lift. Light would return. But when? The young sympathetic doctor from the local practice could not say. The senior partner, whom we had first consulted, was a distinguished looking figure, silver-haired, loud-talking, a Rotarian and pillar of the community. Unsurprisingly he was also a pull your socks up merchant and did not hold with depression. At his happiest going down potholes to assist stricken cavers, he was less adept at getting patients out of their more inaccessible holes.

How long depressions lasted no doctor was prepared to say, nor anyone else that I talked to. There seemed to be no timetable, this want of a timetable almost a definition of the disease. It might be months, but one of the books I looked into talked about years, though what all the authorities did seem agreed on was that, treated or not, depression cleared up in time. One school of thought held that the depression should be allowed to run its course unalleviated and unaccelerated by drugs. But on my mother drugs seemed to have no effect anyway, and if the depression were to run its course and it did take years, many months even, what would happen to my father?

Alone in the house, knowing no one in the village well enough to call on them for help, he was both nurse and jailer. Coaxing his weeping parody of a wife to eat, with every mouthful a struggle, then smuggling himself out of the house to do some hasty shopping, hoping that she would not come running down the street after him, he spent every day and every fitful night besieged by Mam’s persistent assaults on reality, foiling her attempts to switch off the television, turn off the lights or pull the curtains against her imaginary enemies, knowing that if he once let her out of his sight she would be at the front door trying to flee this house which was at the same time her prison and her refuge.

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