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.

‘John,’ she repeated, smiling. She gave me a long, appraising look. ‘So. What are you in for, John?’

This was a question I couldn’t answer. I hadn’t been told the official diagnosis, I still couldn’t remember the days immediately preceding my admission and, on the few occasions when I had taken the time to notice the other inmates on the ward, I felt utterly unlike them. In fact, when I was alone, I felt extremely lucid. I knew something had happened to me, and I knew it was intrinsic to who I was, but I didn’t believe I was ‘mentally ill’. I didn’t even think I was mad. Though the word was never used, and it took me years to apply it to the condition that I have been managing all my life, I can see now that I was suffering from a spike in the usual apophenia: the extreme tendency to find elaborate patterns and significance in everything. Meanwhile, as I would quickly learn, Cathy was a ‘schizophrenic’. Actually, she was a ‘classic schizophrenic’ and, at times, her condition was almost ploddingly textbook: she believed that she had been injured in an accident and that her spleen – apparently the home of the soul – had been removed; she heard messages from some lost cosmonaut coming through the TV in the day room; she wanted to escape the hospital, but she couldn’t leave, because ‘they’ were holding her daughters hostage etc, etc. In the days that followed, she told me all these stories and, for most of the time, I believed her. It was, in fact, a sign that I was still unwell that I continued to believe, just as it was a sign of my recovery when I became first sceptical, then incredulous. Now, she was watching me, waiting for an answer to her question. I shook my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I said.

Cathy laughed. This seemed to be the funniest thing she had heard in months. ‘You’re funny,’ she said. ‘I think you’re funny. Do you know that?’

I smiled. ‘How am I funny?’ The words felt like balls of felt in my mouth.

She laughed again. ‘People are only funny when they don’t know they’re funny,’ she said quickly. ‘You should know that.’ She studied my face, and I could see that she was checking, making sure I was genuinely funny, and not just faking it. A moment later, satisfied, or so it seemed, she sat back in her chair and looked up at the TV again. The man on the screen, an actor in an American TV series, was talking very earnestly to a courtroom full of people. ‘He’s not funny,’ Cathy said. She turned back to me. ‘You’re funny,’ she said. ‘I hope you remember this.’ Then, in a millisecond, her face changed, and she turned slightly, her head tilted to one side. ‘Listen!’ she said.

I listened. I couldn’t hear anything, other than the TV and, in a far corner of the day room, a man called Paddy, fast asleep and snoring in his usual chair. ‘What is it?’ I said.

She didn’t answer. She was listening hard, the way an animal listens for a predator, out in the open somewhere, hopelessly exposed.

‘What?’ I said again, and, though I couldn’t hear what she was hearing, I was listening with her, actively listening and, later, I understood that this was the moment when she recognised me as a fellow-traveller. Because – how to say this? – I wasn’t not hearing on purpose, as others did, because they doubted her, I was just not hearing. ‘I don’t hear it,’ I said; and I heard the disappointment in my voice, because I felt not that she was having auditory hallucinations, but that I was missing something.

At that, Cathy looked at me and, for one moment, a flicker of suspicion passed across her face. Then, just as suddenly as she had tensed up, she relaxed. She smiled at me, her eyes still searching – not for signs of danger this time, but for reassurance. ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing at all.’ She stood up and looked around the day room with a surprised and slightly dismayed expression, like Bette Davis in some old movie. ‘Shall we go for a walk?’ she said. It was clear, from her tone, that refusal was not an option.

It doesn’t sound like a very auspicious beginning, I suppose, yet over the next few days Cathy and I became new best friends and, aside from the obvious fact that we were neither of us normal, the basis of that friendship seemed to be that we were both listeners. For a long time, this seemed significant, as if it really might be true that the world was divided into two groups: those who heard voices in the radiators and cisterns and those who heard nothing but water. I think I knew, even then, that people like us were doomed to spend the rest of their lives on the alert, listening for those whispers and catcalls in the plumbing. Even if we ‘get well’, even if we transition back to the normal world and learn to pass, we can never stop ourselves from pausing, halfway through the afternoon, or in the wee small hours, suspended over a sink or standing stock-still in some washroom or hallway, pausing to listen, to test the water, to verify the silence. Because, of course, to stop hearing doesn’t necessarily mean that there is nothing to hear and, even as the confirmation of a provisional and approximate sanity arrives, the suspicion remains that one is always missing something.

At the same time, I have to confess that I was drawn to Cathy, attracted by a force that seemed to me both entirely natural and utterly mysterious. It was partly sexual, no doubt, and it was certainly romantic, both in the usual meaning of the word, and in the sense that the woman I was drawn to was a myth, as much a creature of my own imagination as she was flesh and blood. She was not conventionally beautiful. On bad days, she was grey, pallid, almost non-existent; but at other times, there was a quality to her presence that seemed almost unbearably glamorous, in the old sense, not like a catwalk model or a starlet, and not, God help us, like a celebrity, but in the sense Walter Scott uses it, the sense of creating a spell, of casting the glamour. The sense, in other words, of a verb rather than a noun, an influence rather than a state. Not the calculated theatre of celebrity, but the accidental drama of someone who unwittingly illumines the world as she passes through, unaware of the magic, blind to her own charms. For a time, I imagined I was in love with her, and, as I got better, I plotted to take her with me when I got out, so we could start a new life together, the old one-day-at-a-time, hard-at-first-but-gradually-winning-through, amor vincit omnia trip.

That fantasy didn’t last, of course; but, for a while, we met every day and, often, we were close to happy. We felt like kin, fellow-travellers in a country where nobody else spoke the language, sitting in the day room or wandering the grounds, talking about nothing and everything, telling stories, philosophising and, sometimes, laying claim to some vague right that they were denying us, the right to be who and what we were, as opposed to the normal citizens that society wanted us to be. Gradually, however, I began to think of that right as a Pyrrhic victory and, as the drugs took effect, it wasn’t long before I was well enough to know how sick Cathy actually was and, soon enough, this awareness began to show.

One day, in the hospital gardens, we saw a squirrel running across a patch of open ground ahead, and we stopped to watch as it paused, sat upright, studied us with a critical eye, then hurried a few yards further, just to be safe, before sitting up again and turning back to check that we were still out of range. Cathy turned to me. ‘I feel sorry for animals,’ she said.

‘Why?’

‘Because –’ She thought for a moment. ‘Because they don’t know they are going to die. Not till it happens, anyway. They haven’t got that exchange to look forward to.’

I shook my head. I didn’t understand what she meant by ‘exchange’. I wondered if I’d misheard something and then I decided that this was just some morbid wordplay, one of those wilful reversals that usually marked a change in her condition, from more or less normal to pretty much gone. She would do that from time to time, launching out on a fantasy, with me as a sounding-board; it would feel like a game at first, a diversion from the tedium of the hospital day, but it would quickly darken – like Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet – to folk philosophy in its wildest form, the merely baroque shading into the painfully grotesque in a matter of moments. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said; but she didn’t hear. She was watching the squirrel, and the squirrel was watching her. It seemed, for a moment, that something was passing between them, a communication, an exchange. Then the creature darted away, and the spell was broken.

Cathy looked back to me. Her face was empty now, no glamour, no light and, at the same time, no distraction. ‘Remember when you’re a kid,’ she said. ‘How you know someone is watching you all the time? Everything you do, somebody sees it? And they tell you that person is God, or maybe you just think it must be God, because who else would be watching? Only it’s not God. It’s you. There’s this exact replica of you and it’s wandering around on the moon, walking in the mountains, because the moon has mountains, did you know this?’ She turned to me, waiting for an answer and I nodded. I had heard a story like this before, but I didn’t know where. ‘So, it’s wandering about in the mountains of the moon,’ she continued. ‘And all the time it’s watching you and when you die it comes and takes your place, and then you’re there, on the moon –’ She stopped suddenly, and I could see she was listening for something. She listened for a minute or so, then she came back to where we were and looked at me, studying my face to see if I had understood, or if I thought she was just mad, like the rest of them. To begin with, she didn’t know which; then she decided. ‘I read that in a book,’ she said, after a long moment. ‘It’s a comfort, don’t you think?’

I nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said – and I realised that I wasn’t just humouring her. I really did agree. It was a comfort.

Cathy smiled. ‘You’ll be going soon,’ she said – and I knew she was right about that too. When our moods coincided, we agreed about everything, but now we agreed for different reasons. She was still mad, and I was almost ready to go back; and, though it had been obvious from the beginning, I realised for the first time that I would be going alone.

A few nights later, we sneaked out and walked to the nearest pub. It was a low-ceilinged, slightly too countrified place, but it was also close to deserted, which meant that it suited our purposes exactly. All we wanted was a drink and a corner to sit in, a nook where we could pretend we were normal people out for a walk, or on a date, and not loony-bin daytrippers with the obvious signs of medication and recent hallucinations ghosting across our faces like shadows in a field of barley. Cathy was at her brightest, and the landlord, a big, sleepy man with a contented air about him, was sufficiently glamoured to pretend he didn’t know where we’d come from. After he served us, we sat down in the furthest corner of the room, suddenly awkward, not with the sane world in which we knew we were interlopers, but with one another, and for some time we didn’t speak. Then, when we did, the conversation was random and jagged, and it felt as if we were performing lines from a script, the script of normality, where people talked very carefully about nothing. It was painful, but we couldn’t stop it. We were out for a drink, we had escaped – and we were, as we both knew, here to say our goodbyes.

Finally, the quiet was broken by the sudden arrival of a party of young locals: it was obvious, right away, that they were locals, from this or another of the surrounding villages, a party of eight, or rather, of four couples, boys home for the summer holidays with their home-for-the-holidays girlfriends, all of them well dressed in a smart-casual way and all of them known to the landlord, who no doubt knew and occasionally had a drink with their parents and so could vouch for the fact that they were good people. I watched them arrive and settle around a table, calling out orders to the tall, faintly tousled boy who had gone to the bar, debating choices, asking about the food. I was charmed, I admit, by the air they had of liking their own lives, and by the open and apparently genuine pleasure they took in one another, not just the person they were with, but the entire company. They were too well-off, of course, and they already seemed distantly young to me, but I didn’t mind that. I even allowed myself a moment of sentimental appraisal of the unexpected vision they presented and, suddenly aware of the fact that, for too long, my own pleasures had been etched with black and half a wish for destruction, I felt an absurd, but forgivable desire to be like them. A normal boy, with a normal and very pretty girl, out with friends, in a place I had always known: that notion seemed, for a moment, both wonderful and preposterous. I turned to Cathy. I suppose I was expecting to catch a reflection of this sentiment in her eyes; instead, what I saw was loathing.

‘What is it?’ I said. The expression on her face frightened me. I looked back to the new arrivals, who were completely oblivious to everything outside their own charmed circle, then I glanced at the landlord – and I saw that he had seen, or sensed, that something was going on in our corner. He was dealing with his customers, smiling and talking about beer with the tousled boy, but he had sensed trouble and he was on alert, at the back of his mind. No doubt he thought he was presenting an easy face to the world, but he wasn’t about to fool a paranoid psychotic of my stature. I picked up my glass and drained it, then I touched Cathy’s arm, very gently. I could feel the tension. ‘Let’s go,’ I said, very quietly.

To my relief, she stood up right away – and I thought, to begin with, that the situation might just be manageable. If I could get her outside without incident, all would be well; perhaps we could go somewhere, maybe buy a bottle of something and sit out for a while and have our goodbye drink. It was warm, still, not yet dark. All around, the countryside was touched with the dusty gold of after-harvest, dry and kindly and faintly sweet, like some old English folk-song and, for one moment, I imagined we could just leave and be on our way – but Cathy had other ideas. At first, she was just talking to me, her voice thin, just above a whisper, so quiet I could barely make out what she was saying. ‘Who chose them?’ she said; then she said it again, a little louder. ‘Who chose them?’ Then her voice rose: she wasn’t shouting, quite, but she was calling out, accusing, judging. ‘Who chose them?’ she said, again. ‘Who chose them? Nobody. They choose themselves.’

I took hold of her arm then, and began steering her towards the nearest exit, while she called back, not to the party at the other table so much as to the world in general, the same words, over and over, pausing for a second or two to consider each time she spoke, as if she thought the question could be better framed with a little effort. The door was only a few feet away, and we could have made it, but when Cathy spoke again, some of the other party looked up and, when she repeated her question for the fifth or sixth time, she had everyone’s attention, the beautiful young people, the landlord, the two or three locals at the far end of the bar, all of them turning to stare at her, some in bewilderment, some amused, others just beginning to understand that a judgment was being pronounced and making ready to be offended. Meanwhile, the landlord was on his way round the bar.

‘All right now,’ he was saying. ‘I think it’s time –’

I didn’t hear the rest. I knew what he wanted, and I wanted the same thing, but now Cathy was waving her free arm and pointing around the room, bearing witness, going cuckoo while the young people watched, bemused and concerned and, in some cases at least, a little scared. Meanwhile, I was trying to guide Cathy towards the door, a foot at a time, while the landlord advanced and I had visions of a scuffle, of police uniforms and doctors and people screaming. I looked across and saw that one of the young people had stood up, a dark-haired, rather flat-nosed boy in a rugby shirt and, though he wasn’t moving in our direction yet, he was getting ready to be useful.

And then, in a matter of seconds, everything changed. Cathy turned to the landlord and her gesticulating arm suddenly dropped to her side. ‘It’s all right,’ she said, her voice soft and oddly plaintive. ‘It’s all right. Don’t be sad. Nobody’s doing anything.’ She was talking quickly, the way she had done when we first met. ‘Nobody’s going to hurt you. It’s all right.’ At this, one of the young people burst out laughing, and she turned to see, and at exactly the same moment the landlord slipped past me and opened the door, his eyes fixed on my face, as if he thought that, by choosing to pretend that Cathy didn’t exist, he could ensure that any burden remained mine and mine alone, a matter of man-to-man, of me taking this nuisance away and letting him go about his business. I don’t know if he understood that I was a mental patient too, but if he did it didn’t matter, because I was the one who’d brought this woman to his pub, and it was my obligation to take her away again. I didn’t entirely agree with this position, but I understood it and, now that the door was open, and the fresh air seeping in, I did what was necessary and, with some difficulty, manoeuvred Cathy through the exit and out, into the cool of the evening. Once we were safely outside, the door banged shut behind us, and Cathy fell silent. For a long time we just stood there, not looking at one another, as if waiting for something that had been interrupted to start over again, a ghost machinery whirring in our minds, all smoke and mirrors. What had just occurred was, of course, a minor, but altogether decisive betrayal. I had stood against her with the big world and, in so doing, I had declared myself hors d’asile: almost well, and ready to do what was necessary to pass for sane. I was still holding her by the arm, but I knew I didn’t need to anymore. The tension was gone and, after a few minutes’ silence, she turned to me, her face calm, as if nothing had happened. Her eyes were bright, feverish-looking, but the glamour was gone. She was like a guilty child who knows it has done wrong but doesn’t want to acknowledge the transgression. ‘Shall we go for a walk?’ she said. ‘It’s a lovely night.’

The next day, we met as usual and went for a walk in the grounds, but it quickly became obvious that a gap had opened between us. A week earlier, we had been denizens of the same scary and privileged world; now, I was somewhere on the outside, like a visitor at the zoo, peering through the bars, caught out in a vain and rather wistful attempt at fellow-feeling. A few days later, I left the hospital. The staff didn’t think I was ready, but I couldn’t wait. I gathered the things I had accumulated – some spare clothes and toiletries and half a dozen books that a friend had brought in – and I put them in a plastic bag that one of the nurses gave me; then, alone and already painfully remote from the people around me, I sat in the day room, waiting for Cathy to come, so I could say goodbye. I waited a long time, but she didn’t show.

Sometimes that happened: either she would come floating into the room and sit down next to me, launching straight into the conversation that we’d discontinued the day before, or she would stay on her own ward, a grey, faraway creature, barely present, gazing into space. In the past, whenever she’d drifted away to that ghost place, I had wanted to go to her bedside and find some way of bringing her back, like Janet in the old story, who has to seize Tam Lin, the beautiful youth held captive by the Queen of the Fairies, and pull him from his horse, as he rides in the demonic procession: to pull him from his horse and back to earth, then hold tight, as the queen transforms him into a snake, then a lion and, finally, a naked, newborn creature which she must conceal from the fairies’ gaze, if she wants to keep him. But I wasn’t allowed at Cathy’s bedside – and I knew it wasn’t the Queen of the Fairies that had beguiled her. It was something lodged in her own self, a wet, dark, sweetbitter, slightly greeny, timeless wraith, which longed to exist in its own right, to have its own, independent life, to swim or fly or just walk free, dark and perverse enough to glamour the world for ever with its eerie light. I think, that morning, as I made ready to leave and go back to the outside world, I still believed in this glamouring spirit, which no doubt meant that I was not quite as sane as I was supposed to be, but it was reason enough – a wrong reason, but also a better one than anything else I could have come up with – for taking up my plastic bag and walking away.

At the time, I told myself that our parting was temporary, but I understand now that I was already preparing for the possibility of never seeing Cathy again; and I never did, though I came back twice to visit, only to be turned away, either because she wouldn’t see me, or because the staff had decided that it wasn’t in either of our best interests to continue what they saw as an inappropriate relationship. If I am honest, I suspect that this was probably a relief. Once I was out in the world, I became so preoccupied with trying to pass that I allowed myself to believe that any further visits would only upset us both. So it was a long while before I heard, completely by accident, that she was dead. Apparently, she had been in and out of hospital a couple of times; then, as part of a new flurry of cost-cutting measures in the health service, she was released into the care of ‘the community’ – no need to say how ironic this term inevitably seems, to people like us – and, some time later, she killed herself. I have no clear idea of why, where or how, but I suppose, when the body was discovered, someone with the appropriate qualifications made a series of textbook pronouncements, and she was laid to rest, while the dank, wet slick of her soul changed places with its doppelganger, and wandered away to the mountains of the moon.