Who Chose Them?

John Burnside

In the summer of 1980, I was admitted to Fulbourn mental hospital, a leafy and surprisingly pleasant institution three or four miles outside Cambridge. I don’t remember very much about the week or so that led up to this point, but I was told later that I had been hallucinating for several days, and I still recall images and fragments from what may well have been a meaningful though decidedly bizarre narrative, a story I was telling myself in a last-ditch attempt to create order in a life that had, by that point, become hopelessly chaotic. What others knew about these hallucinations I never fully established – did I talk about them? was I capable of descriptive speech? – and my own memories are patchy, to say the least. At one point, a series of tiny ballerinas pirouetted across a linoleum floor; then, several hours, or possibly days later, a sleek, oddly beautiful creature, half-girl, half-swordblade, came into the room where I had been sleeping and sat quietly on the edge of my bed, her face kindly, her eyes fixed on mine. Not long after that, a man in a pearl-white suit emerged from the far end of a long corridor and, smiling all the while, as if this were some kind of blessing, shot me in the forehead with a bolt gun similar to the weapons slaughtermen use on cattle.

To this day, I feel sure that those memories are fragments and threads of a much larger story, a story with its own logic and direction, but I cannot remember what that logic consisted of, or where the story was going. Like a sleeper who wakes suddenly from an almost unbearably complex dream, all I have is a wholly unjustifiable conviction that all of this meant something and, to this day, I wish, as I wished then, that I knew what it was. It seems an important failure, now, that I never worked it out, just as it seems irrelevant, looking back over my medical records, to discover that the official diagnosis of my mental state that summer was ‘psychosis, of a paranoid nature’.

At that time, the routine treatment for psychosis of a paranoid nature was anti-psychotic drugs such as chlorpromazine (which, despite its efficacy, in my own case at least, has since fallen out of favour) and a regime of quiet and containment. So it was that, during the next several weeks, I was gradually led back to something approaching normality. Soon, I was able to follow the routines of the hospital: wake-up call; breakfast; medication; day room; lunch; medication; day room or a turn in the grounds; dinner; medication; day room; medication; sleep, with patches of medication, if needed. This went on for quite some time, during which I was mostly oblivious to the other patients, and even to the staff, as I worked my way through the set timetable: oblivious, because I wasn’t really present most of the time and, when I was, I became so absorbed in trying to work out how I’d got there that other people really did seem irrelevant. Irrelevant is an important word, I find, in attempting to describe mental aberration: the most obvious characteristic of the mentally ill is their disregard for what other people consider important or necessary, while their sense of what does matter – an image on the back of a cereal box, a real or imagined moment from some far-off summer’s morning, a phrase from a radio broadcast that invades the mind like a virus and breeds there, till there’s little room for anything else – is entirely mysterious to outsiders.

I don’t know how long I inhabited that private world, and I don’t know how long I might have stayed there, if I hadn’t met Cathy, but one day, while dangling over a bran-laced lunch in the refectory (all the food in psychiatric hospitals contained added bran, to counter one of the more unfortunate side-effects of the medication), I suddenly felt that someone was beside me, sitting to my left, our shoulders almost, but not quite, touching. Nobody had been there a moment before – paranoid psychotics tend to dine alone – but now, when I turned ever so slightly to sneak a sideways glance at my companion, I saw that I had been joined by a woman with long, dusty-blonde hair, in a flower-patterned, possibly quilted housecoat or dressing-gown. She wasn’t looking at me (and it occurred to me, later, that she may well have had no intention of sitting down next to me at all), but she was aware of the fact that someone or something was there, not so much a person from the actual world as a co-conspirator, or perhaps a witness, from her own imagined realm, and what she did next was part of a drama that had nothing to do with me, a drama that was almost wholly internal.

What she did next, in fact, was the act of a psychiatric patient, a mentally-ill individual, yet it was also a work of art, and I still think that its purpose was to create order, just as a work of art attempts to create, or at least to clear the way for, a similar order in the wider world. As she rose, I could tell that she was checking to see if I – or rather, the presence for whom I was a surrogate – was watching her; then, assured that this was the case, she began to spin around on near-tiptoe, like a dervish, her arms outstretched, her body suspended in what felt like its own force field, sweet and wild and inviolable, turning perfectly in the honeyed sunlight that, at that very moment, was streaming in through the refectory windows, picking her out like a spotlight and isolating her, as she danced her terrible, rapt solo. I had been marooned in my own small world until that dance began; now, I had no choice but to turn and look round, no choice but to bear witness to what was happening. At that moment, I was struck, through the sweet haze of bran and chlorpromazine and the suspicion that the whole thing might be a last, parting gift from the hallucinatory state I had occupied for what felt like months, I was struck, as I say, by the sheer beauty of the moment and, at the same time, by the thought that, in order to reach such a state of grace, this woman had been obliged to let herself become mad and, so, fundamentally indefensible. It was beautiful, that dance, but it was also an act of the darkest celebration, an almost unbearable tribute to whatever it was in the world that was crushing her. Then, after what seemed a long time, but probably wasn’t at all (had it gone on, the professionals would doubtless have intervened), this interlude was over and the woman was gone, leaving only a vague impression of movement and wildness in the air. Looking around, I saw that the other patients – lost in their own dramas or bent to their soup bowls, intent on following the prescribed regime to the letter – hadn’t noticed a thing, and the woman, Cathy, was nowhere to be seen.

I didn’t see her again for several days and, when I did, she looked so slight and pallid, such a ghost of a person, that I barely recognised her. On that occasion, and on the two or three that followed, she ignored me, and I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. Then, almost a week after our first encounter, she found me in the day room and sat down alongside me, her face fixed on the television screen that I had been doing my best to ignore.

‘What’s your name?’ she said; then, without waiting for a reply, she added quickly: ‘My name’s Cathy.’

I looked at her. She was vivid again, not a ghost, the pallor gone, her eyes bright. Had she seemed just a little less febrile, she could have passed in the outside world for vivacious. ‘John,’ I said, noticing how dull my voice sounded – and I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.

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