Authors: Liz Jensen
For my beloved father, Niels Rosenvinge Jensen.
Whose fault everything is.
‘Expect a new world,’ said the evangelist, ‘and the Lord shall provide it.’
But he was lying, as usual. The Lord provided nothing. Why should He? I’ve worked in the holiday industry, and my theory is this: the planet God designed for us to inhabit is strictly self-catering.
So dates shift, and one century becomes another amid much ballyhoo: fireworks, champagne, suicide. But the world doesn’t change. It’s people that change. Take me.
Have I changed?
Are courgettes green?
the largest dinosaur that ever stomped the earth?
This is my story. Mine, and Ma’s, and that of my excruciating sister Linda. It charts the chain of homely atrocities that began that winter and led to the downfall of the Perfect Baby Project. The snowballing saga created other casualties, too: the greenhouse, my husband’s reputation, the regime in one of the nation’s leading mental institutions. It nearly destroyed the evangelist, too, but the Born Again have a habit of resurrecting themselves. So despite the public humiliation, the Reverend Carmichael is doing well enough to get back on prime-time TV and say, ‘Expect a new world.’
I was out to lunch, in one way or another, for most of that year, so I had to piece it all together afterwards – from what emerged at the trial, from the confession of my husband’s mistress, from Ma’s epistles to Dad, from the recollections of my aforementioned sister (including details of the Reverend’s hairy penis), and from the rigorous Stasi-style inquiry at the Manxheath Institute of Challenged Stability.
Everyone exaggerated their own heroism, of course, and played down their cowardice, greed, duplicity, stupidity, et cetera. They all, interestingly, made a point of insisting that their sanity had been intact throughout. Not least Ishmael, the great pretender. Thus is history enacted and recorded: in jigsaw fragments.
Just as well, then, is it not, that jigsaws are one of the few things I’m good at?
The media knew me as Dr Gregory Stevenson’s wife, of course, but not being great cottoners-on, the journalists only ever got a fifth of the story. They never discovered, for example, that I was personally involved in the whole scandal on a grand scale. Nor did I, until it was too late. When the story finally broke, the papers called me a ‘suburban mother-of-one’. One article said I had a ‘chilly smile’. This was one way of describing the weird rictus that gripped my jaw, which not even alcohol would loosen.
This was the new me.
My so-called delusions started around the time I went to visit Ma in the loony bin. To me they were just ideas that began to gel in my head, but my husband Gregory, being a doctor, insisted they were something more clinical. He’s not one to use a medical term like ‘delusion’ lightly.
‘Delusions’ such as: I had become invisible. I meant invisibility in the metaphorical sense, but Gregory is a literally minded man. ‘Delusions’ like, for instance: Gregory was in love with a woman whose long dark hair and sloping shoulders gave her an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary. That was no metaphor. That was fact.
Another fact – that my mother was winding down in a loony bin – didn’t help. Like mother, like daughter, I could hear my husband thinking. It had been eighteen months since I had visited the Manxheath Institute of Challenged Stability. How peaceful the grounds were, with fat oaks, and clusters of silver birch which has that white, shivering way about it in a cold sun that can make your blood hum. I can see Ma there now, her thick outline filling the doorway: she blocks entry. She clutches her handbag level with her sternum like a heavy platter. She rhinos forward to greet me, but when she comes close to kiss the air next to my cheek (she prefers not to touch, especially bare skin), she panics about what to do with her bag. She has had this bag for years; it is a too-big one in artificial leather, and the inside smells of ink, onion, and dandruff. It is empty now, I imagine. She checked in her belongings long ago, at the front desk. I can see she wants to make a gesture of contact, but the bag is in the way, and her big mitts are locked so they can’t loosen their hold of it. We fumble about a bit, in a hopping dance, and in the end she compromises by keeping a grasp on both straps but letting the bag swing low by her knees, a giant scrotum.
We are standing in the porch, where noticeboards flutter with hospital messages and photocopied posters: ‘Relax with yoga’. ‘Family Help Network – a listening ear’. ‘Support your hospital radio’. ‘Institute of Challenged Stability dancing lessons: jive it up!’ ‘Patchwork for Pleasure’. ‘Lost: child’s shoe, red, size 28’. ‘Ever thought of bowls?’.
‘How are you, Ma?’ I ask. Old habits.
‘Dry all the time. I have to keep licking my lips.’
She has a Scottish snob’s voice. She comes from near Inverness. She came to England, to Gridiron, when she met my dad, but her accent hung on at home. When you grow up with a voice, it goes unnoticed, like the smell of your house. But now her accent seems like a stranger’s. In fact, it has broadened since she’s been at Manxheath: the words come out as ‘lucking ma lups’. And to prove it she licks them slowly, like a camel.
‘Nice trees, don’t you think?’ she says, as I follow her down a windowless corridor.
I have come to have a look, of course. To inspect her, in fact. I feel quite cold-blooded. I had been expecting a caged animal, gnawing at the bars, or asleep in a corner, a drugged ball of sawdust and fur – but it was a mistake to think of cages. A mistake, because you can tell at a glance that she is at her most free. My mother has turned a frightening colour: a pale, waxy yellow. Her obesity still gives her the look of freight, but she has shrunk a little. Her outsize skirt hangs loosely round her middle, showing a strip of grey nylon petticoat.
The first thing she wants to know is where I’ve parked the car. It seems important to her.
‘It’s in the Pay and Display,’ I reassure her. ‘Five hundred spaces.’
‘Oh good,’ she says, a weight lifted from her mind. She licks her lips again, very slowly. And then she looks away from me and says abruptly to the air, like a blind person, ‘You can go when you want: don’t feel you have to stay long in this – environment.’
It hasn’t struck me that I might not be welcome. Am I not doing her a favour? I feel wounded. Bugger her. Bugger challenged stability. When I was little she was a story-book mother with a pinny, who sang songs and rolled shortcrust dough, up to her elbows in flour, with the sun streaming in the kitchen window and outside, the bright garden. A garden of apple trees, pumpkins, marigolds. Parsley. I’m sure of it. Then one day, there were real mud pies for lunch, a foul-smelling knickerbocker-glory of a mess seeping under the bathroom door, and a laugh we hadn’t heard before, wild and free and dangerous.
‘I’ll show you round my greenhouse when it’s in better shape,’ she is saying airily. I have seen no sign of this greenhouse. And nice peaceful trees, my mother is repeating proudly, as if she were showing off a new home with the help of a brochure. Good food, too. Not your traditional bland hospital food at all. They do some quite imaginative modern things, interesting salads and curries with turmeric and whatnot, mixing things you wouldn’t normally put together at all, except next to each other on a shelf.
‘I’ve liked everything so far. Oh, except something Caribbean, grapes in spicy mayonnaise. I spat
out in a hurry!’ And she makes a child’s ‘yuk’ face, her cheeks creasing behind her glasses like slabs of putty.
‘I’m re-reading Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf,’ she tells me.
We come out and walk down a path along the outside of the building, making dragging progress because the drugs have side-effected to her feet. She stops now and then to gaze around, as though the activities of walking and seeing are incompatible. The Victorians built Manxheath in the blood-red brick of conviction, rooting it in a broad park, where crows now stand hacking obsessively at the frozen earth like tiny motorised pickaxes. I watch the white vapours of my mother’s breath curdle into the frozen air as she speaks. We discuss the family in quite a normal way, except that she gets me and my sister muddled up.
‘Honestly, Linda,’ she says at one point. Linda is my sister. I am Hazel. Hazel and Linda: the two daughters of Moira Janet Sugden. There was a boy, but he died aged three months, and her brain began to make the wrong connections, like a knitting machine that creates a complicated garment no one can wear. It annoys me that she calls me Linda.
‘I’m Hazel,’ I say – but she has not heard, or does not want to.
‘Honestly, Linda, I wish you’d do something about your sister with her strange baby, who by the way keeps sending me messages, and that gynaecological man of hers. I don’t trust him. He looks voluptuous.’
Hang on a minute; she’s talking about me. My baby. (What messages?) My ‘voluptuous’ husband.
Even though I know she’s mad, I want to take her by the throat and shake her and hit her. It is something I used to have dreams about – nightmares, in fact. Hitting her but the blows bouncing off,
as if she was rubber.
But I say nothing. She comes to a halt in front of a door.
‘You should see the other patients, good gracious, Linda.’
‘I’m Hazel,’ I say patiently, but she ignores me again. (I should put up a notice on the board. Lost: Hazel’s identity. Small reward.)
mad. There’s an Indian woman who walks round and round in circles, and a man, must be thirty-five–forty, thinks he’s a divorce lawyer, which is complete phoney-baloney, because he’s also a pathological liar, but he’s actually been divorced so he must have gone through some legal books because he knows all the Acts and details of it and jargon and everything. And an Italian Signora who’s been pregnant for months now, years even, but the doctors don’t believe her. She’s my best friend, actually.’
She pauses slightly and I notice her eyes flicker at me sideways, checking that what she’s said about having a friend – a best friend who thinks she’s pregnant – impressed me. I let my mouth twitch in acknowledgement, and she carries on.
‘Then there was this one man, funny glasses with sticking plaster everywhere but otherwise quite unnoticeable, suddenly flipped and attacked this poor little Jamaican and then had a sort of fit, shouting some very nasty racist things. The staff were there in a flash; you think they’re not watching but they are. Then there’s this man called Max, hates women. It’s neural. And another one who’s convinced he’s got a contagious disease, several contagious diseases, in fact, and I think he has because he comes out in boils but they just ignore him, say it’s psycho-something. Well that’s what he’s here for, isn’t it, to be cured of his psycho-something, but
don’t care. We had a Mrs Cramper, too, but she’s gone now; she had a wee, wee microchip computer implanted in her head, controlled by the Driving Vehicle Licence Centre in Swansea. Anyway, I look completely sane next to some of the others.’