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Authors: Priscilla Masters

A Plea of Insanity

BOOK: A Plea of Insanity
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A Plea of Insanity

PRISCILLA MASTERS

To Nick, congratulations on getting the MSc, good luck with the job hunting and thanks for helping me with my never ending computer problems!

Monday, September 1st, 9 am

She could smell the paint. Chemical, pungent, nauseating.

 

She stood in the doorway for a brief moment, trying to ignore the smell but it seemed to pollute her nostrils. When she tried, experimentally, to mouth-breathe it was worse. She could taste it on her tongue, in her throat, almost feel it reach her stomach and sit there, a thick oily, chemical pool which made her retch.

But still she entered the room, closing the door softly behind her.

 

All rooms in institutions are painted like these, in bland, neutral colours. Mushroom, cream, magnolia, beige, grey. The authorities must buy the paint in economy drums. Claire was reminded of a tongue-in-cheek lecture she had attended about colour schemes suitable for the consultation room.

Avoid red or orange; designed to inflame, the lecturer had said smugly, knowing all.

Strong blues and greens. Cold colours. Display a lack of empathy.

Don’t choose black – too funereal for those already melancholic and guaranteed to tip bipolar disorders into the sludge of their depressive cycle.

Avoid sharp, strong whites. Incites hallucinations in the borderline psychotic.

Medics did this, transformed a descriptive adjective into a collective noun: Bipolars, depressives, the anxious, psychotics. The list was endless.

And so the room was predictably painted in Asylum
Cream. Recently. Not the richness of Jersey milk or Welsh butter. More a contaminated white.

 

Already she was assessing her new office with an awareness of potential danger, seeking out sharp objects – finding a grey, metal three-drawered filing cabinet with a sharp, cutting edge. Thrown hard against that it could wound her.

Her mind rolled on to an escape route and instinctively she moved towards the window which overlooked the enclosed quadrangle where inmates could sit on benches, chat, smoke, read – if they could. Particularly on such a bright, warm day. Beyond that was the stone archway fortified by huge gates which stood shut, except for a tiny door which was left ajar.

She opened the window the regulation four inches (no wider in case of attempted suicide) to try and dispel the smell. She dragged in a lungful of untainted air and felt cleaner. One should do this – start a new job on the 1st of the month, on a Monday. It pleased Claire’s need for neatness and order.

She hung her linen jacket on the hook on the back of the door and resolved to bring in a hanger tomorrow. Plastic – not wire.

 

After her throat had been cut her body had been hanged on the hook on the back of the door
. But she had died first. The pathologist had said so in the
Daily Telegraph
.

Claire tried to avoid fixing on the hook.

So instead she peered out through the window. Four people were squashed together on one bench. Three women, one man. All the other benches were empty. They did this odd thing, crowded each other, then got annoyed with their proximity and fell out, like children in a school playground.

 

A nurse was walking towards them, skirting round the
half-barrel
tubs filled with geraniums and petunias – a futile attempt to brighten up the concrete paving slabs. He was not in uniform but it was easy to tell he was a nurse because all four on the bench looked towards him and stiffened, like a row of paper penguins. The nurse was tall and hefty, wearing jeans and a flapping T-shirt which warned of AIDS Awareness Week. She knew him from the newspaper articles too. Siôna Edwards, a Welshman, described by the
Mirror
as ‘as kind a man as you have ever met’, by the
Sun
as ‘having a heart as big as a bear’, by the
Mail
as ‘as gentle as a lamb’ and the
Express
as ‘as strong as an ox’. One or two of the editorials had included his quote that occasionally you needed that strength when patients were ‘out of order’.

Siôna Edwards had been the one to find Gulio cowering in the corridor, backed against the wall, knife on the floor, the hands blooding his face as he protested over and over and over again. ‘I didn’t do it, Siôna. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. I didn’t touch her. I didn’t do anything.’ With what must have been terrible foreboding the Welshman had followed the bloody tracks back along the corridor, tried to push open the door. Found it too heavy to open, summoned help.

Afterwards he had been quoted as saying. ‘It could have been his blood. They often do cut themselves. But
—’ There had been a wealth of meaning even in the printed but ‘–
in my heart of hearts I already knew something terrible lay behind that door
.’ Even though the words were clichéd Claire had sensed they had been a direct quote. An indication of his sense of terror.

So as he’d run back along the corridor his hand had flapped out and banged the red panic button
.

 

She moved away from the window. Back into the room. She was here to work. Not to wallow in the past and her first morning had deliberately been left free to read through patients’ notes. She should not waste the time. This afternoon, at two pm, her first clinic started.

She should be reading. Preparing.

The key stuck out of the filing cabinet. She turned it and slid the top drawer open. Jammed with files, A-M.

She pulled out the first one, Mavis Abiloney.

In Heidi’s writing. She recognised it, from letters they had exchanged, spidery, bold writing, clear and easy to read. Making a statement. Like the letter Heidi had sent her in response to her job application apologising for being hand written but the computers were down!

She took the file over to the desk and switched the computer on.

It asked her for her ID.

It had all been fixed with the IT department the week before.

CR.

It asked her for a password.

Mother, she typed.

It asked her to confirm the password.

******, she typed, then clicked the icon for clinics.

Whom would she be seeing this afternoon?

A mixture. Some inpatients, some outpatients.

Mavis Abiloney, an inpatient, was the two o’clock appointment.

Claire bent over the notes.

The last entry had been made on the 17th of March.

The day Heidi had been murdered. This was something the newspaper had not reported. Such information was both confidential and irrelevant anyway but for Claire this
was the first fact about the murder which she had learned for herself.

On the day she had died Heidi Faro had interviewed Mavis Abiloney.

She read through the date again. The 17th of March. On an ordinary, dull, Monday afternoon when nobody could have expected anything dramatic to happen, Heidi Faro, consultant psychiatrist, had had her throat cut by one of her patients in the mundane environment of Greatbach Secure Psychiatric Unit in the city of Stoke on Trent famous for its china and Robbie Williams. Claire knew all the newspaper accounts had emphasised the very ordinariness of the day and the place. That it had been the archetypal March Monday, dull, blustery and cold. And now, from the case notes she held in front of her, Claire knew that part of Heidi’s last morning on earth had been spent speaking to Mavis Abiloney, an inpatient who, according to her predecessor’s notes, had made 83 suicide attempts.

If at first you don’t succeed
… Claire’s thoughts flew to the iron headmistress whose voice had boomed out this particular maxim.

Would she still agree? She scanned Heidi’s observations with a click of interest. On March the seventeenth she had written,
‘Little Change’
, and expanded underneath.
‘Still expressing suicidal ideas but nothing specific. Vague threat of
lying underneath a train.
’ In brackets ‘(
No track for > 3 miles
)’.

Asked if anything in particular was bothering her.

Answer, ‘No.’

Asked if she felt she was ready to return home she had again answered, ‘No’.

Upon broaching the subject that she really couldn’t stay here for ever she had started crying. ‘Why not? You look
after me. I feel safe here. I am safe here.’

Asked if she was happy here.

Answer. ‘Not happy. No. But I don’t think all day about dying.’

‘What do you think about then?’

‘I think about what’s on TV. What’s for dinner. Who I’m going to sit next to. The people I like. The people I don’t like.’

‘Who are the people you like?’

‘Siôna, you. Kristyna and others.’

‘Who are the people you don’t like?’

‘Some. I don’t want to say.’

Plan: Observe, see in a week or two, prolong the Section, aim for discharge asap. When safe.

 

Claire noted the red star in the top right corner of the notes. Red for inpatient; blue for outpatient. Six months later Mavis was still an inpatient. Subsequent consultations had been much more cursory, little more than ‘extension to Section’.

Her successors had not shown Heidi’s dedication.

Claire stared abstractedly across the room at the blank walls, breathing shallowly. In spite of the window being open she could still smell the paint.

Her eyes focused sharply on the door. Usually when you had been in a room for a little while you ceased to notice background smells. But this was different. Strong. Not overpowering now, subtle but unmistakably still there.

Had they deliberately used strong-smelling paint to mask underlying odour?

She stood up, agitated again. Ran her fingertips along the wall. Not quite smooth. She could feel odd bumps, small indentations, a few raised blisters. Tiny, tiny craters where pieces of the plaster had been lifted. She put her face
close to peer along the wall. Surely… surely the pale paint was a little darker here and there? She could even make out the faintest of blue circles in felt-tip pen. She jerked backwards. The marks must be where forensics had ringed individual spots.

Of blood.

She stared so hard she lost her focus.

And worried.

This could so easily become an obsession.

The trouble was, knowing she was due to start at Greatbach six months later, she had read every single account of Heidi Faro’s death. She could still remember them. Verbatim.

Psychiatrist murdered by patient.

Doctor’s throat cut by inmate.

Madman goes on frenzied killing spree
.

At home she had even cut out a piece of paper to represent the room, marked out where the furniture had been, desk, chairs, filing cabinet. Hook on door, copying from the paper which had sported the most lurid detail. She had made a computer diagram of the room. Plotted out the position of the corpse then used her imagination to colour the spray of blood that would have spurted from Heidi’s throat when that sharp, cruel swipe had been made. This room was home to her. Familiar. Nothing was hidden from her.

As a doctor she knew exactly how people died when they had their throats cut.

They drown in their own blood. It fills their windpipe. The trachea
.

On the computer Claire had fanned the spots as they must have hit the wall had Heidi been sitting at her desk as the papers had indicated. But now she was not on a
computer screen but in the very room. And it felt different than she had expected.

Computers do not fill in the senses, and underlying the paint she could smell Heidi’s blood. Feel the atmosphere.

She focused on the bland room again. This would not do. She could not work in that room of her mind. She must work here, personalise the office and obliterate the past. Change it from a murder scene to her own room-of-work.

It was her name which was slotted into the metal case outside the door. Doctor Claire Roget.

Not Doctor Heidi Faro. Never Doctor Heidi Faro again. She must put up some pictures. But what would she hang?

 

Van Gogh, Géricault, Rousseau, Klimt, Turner, Lautrec? All odd. She grimaced. They all belonged in here. As inpatients.

Then what about Arcimboldo – the strangest of the lot? The man who specialised in the grotesque. The man who turned flowers and fruit into strange faces. Who painted so carefully trees, roots, branches and flowers only to knot them into character. Who made animals’ heads, deer, sheep and something like a kangaroo into a stuffy, bloated, old man’s profile. Always a profile. And wound pearls around the neck of another grotesque made of corals and fish, sea snakes and crustaceans, even hanging pearl drop earrings in the oyster shell ears. Fanning books into the face of a scholar.

Yes, she thought, Arcimboldo would do nicely here.

He was perfect for this place where the human form was recognisable but character was distorted. Invisibly.

 

But for now she faced blank walls with their clues so poorly hidden.

And knew there would be others.

In the centre of the room stood the desk. It was not new. Light wood – maybe ash – rather scratched and worn. Nothing on its surface except the computer, the mouse, the keyboard and now Mavis Abiloney’s notes. Almost as though in a vision she knew it would not have been like this six months ago. It would have held a laptop, piles of letters, the surface smothered in papers. Heidi had been a disorganised woman. Claire had watched her at lectures, unable to find her notes, mobile phone ringing throughout, welcoming interruptions.

Put your own mark on it, Claire
.

Next to the notes she put her handbag, soft leather, black.

She cleared her throat, trying to scrape out the taste of paint. The sound seemed harsh and too loud, echoing
self-consciously
around the room, bouncing off the bare walls back to her. She coughed again but the after-taste was still there and now the room was silent again.

She sat down on the chair behind the desk, a
high-backed
, deep-buttoned, black plastic covered swivel chair, the patient’s a smaller one on four wooden feet, a similar one in the corner. The chairs were all new.

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