Friday 1 October 2010

Friday Flash - The Hidden

“This sorry specimen came to us late last month. Her husband brought her. The poor fellow was simply beside himself with worry. He is much improved now that he is confident in the knowledge that she is in our care.”

The warden gestured to the woman behind the bars. A tattered shawl hung around her thin shoulders. A brown mouse sat in the palm of her right hand, nibbling a crumb of bread. The visitors chose not to see the cracks in the wall, or the lack of glass in the window. They did not smell the fouled straw matting on the floor. They did not hear the drip of water in the corner.

“What is her condition?” asked the visitor. He adopted a suitable expression of concern, although his wife looked terrified by the mouse.

“I believe her to be simply melancholic, but the Physician believes her to be delusional. Her paranoia is at an advanced stage, although she is a quiet patient and keeps to herself,” replied the warden.

“What form do her delusions take?” asked the visitor’s wife.

“She calls herself Ann Crook, and believes herself to be the future Queen of England. She denounced her husband when he admitted her, telling us that he was a member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her real husband, so she claims, is Prince Albert Victor,” replied the warden.

“How astonishing!” said the visitor.

“And there is no basis in her claims?” asked his wife.

“We believe not, although she is lucid when she tries to explain. Indeed, one might have trouble believing her to be insane, although the Physician has made this diagnosis, and he is never wrong,” said the warden.

“On what basis did he make his diagnosis?” asked the visitor.

“She ranted and she raved on admittance. She demanded to speak with her husband, and then the police, and she even called for a newspaper man. She has calmed since those early days.”

“Is it safe to speak with her?” asked the visitor’s wife.

“Good Lord, Marian - why ever would you want to do that?” asked the visitor.

“Curiosity, William,” replied his wife.

“She is entirely safe to converse with. I shall call her,” said the warden.

“No need, warden. I can ’ear all you say from ’ere,” said the woman. She looked up from the mouse’s antics.

“Pray tell me, madam. What is your name?” asked the visitor’s wife.

“Ann Crook, but everyone ‘ere calls me Louisa Smith,” replied the woman.

“Are you really the wife of a prince?” asked the wife.

“If I say yes, then I’m a lunatic, and I live in this ‘ell. If I say no, then I’m a liar, and I damn myself to ‘ell,” replied the woman. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll keep quiet.”

“Why would the Prince have you deposited here?” asked the wife.

“I dunno about you but I don’t think a Prince would abandon his wife. His mother, on the other ‘and...well if she’s a cold, uncaring sort who’s only interested in the future of her bleedin’ Empire...then she might well ‘ave somethin’ to do with it,” replied the woman. “She can’t ‘ave her son producing an ‘eir with a Catholic, now, can she?”

“You’re a Catholic?” asked the visitor.

“Not any more, I ain’t. God deserted me when I got dumped in ‘ere. So I deserted ‘im. See how he likes it,” replied the woman.

“Dear me, God does not desert anyone! He loves all of his flock. If you only reach out to him-”

“Pardon my language, my lady, but arses to that,” said the woman.

“Come on now, Louisa. Less of that,” said the warden. He tapped his keys on the bars.

“Or you’ll what? Bleed me? Purge me? Vomit me? The bleedin’ Physician does that!” said the woman.

“Gracious, does he really?” asked the visitor. “I thought such antiquated practices had long been abandoned by the madhouses.”

“I’m in no position to discuss that Physician’s practices, but he’s one of the most brilliant doctors in London. People literally queue to have their unfortunate relations placed under his care in this very hospital,” snapped the warden.

“And they queue up in ‘ere to get back out,” said the woman. “You pay no mind to ‘is blatherin’ on. I’m not the only one who shouldn’t be ‘ere. You stop and think about it - where’s the best place to put someone if you don’t want people to listen to ‘em?”

“William, I think we should be going,” said the wife.

She clutched her husband’s arm. He looked down at her and nodded.

“I really am terribly sorry for your plight, Mrs Smith,” said the visitor.

The warden led them away down the corridor. They didn’t hear the raving of the lunatics upstairs. They didn’t hear the sobbing of the melancholics, locked in their damp cells with only their own neuroses for company.

They didn’t hear the silent plea of an innocent woman.

* * *

This flash was inspired by a book I read about London’s infamous Royal Bethlem Hospital, known as ‘Bedlam’. Written by Paul Chambers, Bedlam: London’s Hospital for the Mad tells several tales of people imprisoned in asylums in the 18th and 19th centuries by relatives eager to get their hands on their wealth, or by people wanting to silence an outspoken individual without resorting to more nefarious means. The conditions, and treatment, described here are all based on documented evidence. The inclusion of Ann Crook is my nod towards Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper epic, From Hell.

The image is from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, wherein a man falls from grace and ends his days a gibbering wreck in Bedlam.


Jen said...

While reading this I really felt I could see all that research you'd put it into it. It sounds real, absolutely believable. And too bad for it. I love the details of the cells, the smells and sounds they pretend not to notice.

Rol said...

Liked that a lot, especially the dialogue. So often in period tales, the dialogue comes across as stilted and flat. Yours here is both naturally and witty. Nice work.

~Tim said...

True stories are often the scariest. Nice job of pulling from history.

Sam said...

Now this I like. A great opening and some excellent descriptions and dialogue, it feels like the opening of a much longer piece, which by the way, I would quite happily read.

Topical too, in as much as Legionaire's Disease was reported at a local psychiatric hospital this week - I wonder just how much conditions have improved since the Bedlam days? ;)

Sulci Collective said...

You did a great job with this, utterly convincing descriptions and dialogue.

"the Physician has made this diagnosis, and he is never wrong" - sounds like the Physician has his own mental illness, delusions & mania!

I would dare venture that Bedlam represents our thinking on mental illness today - some are actually perfectly sane, but because their values and perceptions are so out of the norm of society, they are deemed to be sociopathic. They just see things differently and are not prepared to accept the consensus we build our whole world of illusion on. They occupy a different 'reality' to us, but who is to say it's any more deluded than our own? Of course there are some are out and out psychopaths, those who refuse to accept the conventions against killing and predation.

Laurita said...

I was completely lost in this, you created such a rich atmosphere. Well done! I did get a smile out of this line - “Pardon my language, my lady, but arses to that.”

Anonymous said...

The dialogue shines wonderfully here in this piece, Icy. And the descriptions make such a dismal scenario very real. It is just frightening to know how people were treated.
Adam B @revhappiness

Carrie Clevenger said...

This was a knock-out Icy.

Icy Sedgwick said...

A lot of political agitators, and even simply outspoken women, were imprisoned in asylums to keep them quiet. Calling someone insane is the quickest way to discredit them. Patients at the Royal Bethlem Hospital were notoriously treated in an infamous manner, and the barbaric 'medical' practices continued long after other asylums had adopted new forms of treatment that were proven to work. The fact that so many of the Hospital's Governors were powerful figures in society meant they managed to keep the Hospital exempt from inspections, which no doubt contributed to the horrendous conditions.

Things improved once Bethlem moved from its crumbling site at Moorgate to St George's Fields (the building now houses the Imperial War Museum) but it's a sad chapter in history that the mentally ill were ever treated in such away. Then again, the sigma attached to mental health proves it is a prejudice that has never really gone away.

Jen - I like researching things for my writing. It's interesting to me, and I hope it's interesting to the reader.

Rol - Thank you, I tried quite hard to differentiate the characters as dialogue is rarely my strong point...

Tim - That's why I like basing things on reality - they're scarier somehow than the stuff of imagination.

Sam - I think conditions have improved in some ways but in others nothing has changed.

Marc - A lot of Physicians ended up becoming 'rock stars' in their field so it's unsurprising they'd be resistant to change. Four generations of the Monro family held the post of Physician and they all continued the practices of the preceding generation, refusing to move with the times.

Laurita - You need a little crudity now and then. ;-)

Adam - A lot is often made of how prisoners or refugees get treated and it worries me that the mentally ill don't get the same level of scrutiny.

Carrie - Thank you. :-)

Tony Noland said...

The accuracy of your portrayal of asylum life was visceral. Great descriptions.

Anonymous said...

small point - great story - but the hospital was named Bethlehem (not Bethlem) after Christ's birthplace

Icy Sedgwick said...

artetcrowntreest - I hate to disagree but it was originally named Bethlehem but was very quickly shortened to Bethlem even on its original site at Bishopsgate. Even now the hospital is referred to as the Royal Bethlem Hospital. See here for more information.

Genevieve Jack said...

This one had me at "sorry specimen". To me, there is nothing scarier than the mental hospital - even the modern ones. Well done, Icy. Loved the detail about the mouse.

Icy Sedgwick said...

G.P. - Thanks, it's my tiny nod to Mr. Jingles in Stephen King's The Green Mile.

Anonymous said...

Superb dialogue here Icy. You do have a gift for that, as well as putting us directly into the atmosphere. I love it!

Laura Eno said...

Excellent portrayal here...scary to realize the reality of it. Well done!

Marissafarrar said...

Great piece! Your use of description is brilliant. And I love the Green Mile!

Icy Sedgwick said...

Tony - Why thank you!

Deanna - It's funny, all my characters used to sound like me, but now when I "watch the movie" in my head, I actually listen to them speak!

Laura - I think that's the worst part, knowing some of this actually went on. I don't know if the spouse of a Royal ever ended up dumped in an asylum but two political assassins were, because it was easier than mounting a trial for treason!

Marissa - I loved it too! I thought Mr Jingles was such a comforting presence.

Craig Smith said...

The more I find out about the past, the more I'm happy I'm alive now.

Excellent writing Icy :)

Chloé P. Kovac said...

I've had nightmares from time to time of just such a scenario. Being locked away in a "crazy house". Scary stuff!

Unknown said...

You got me right from the beginning. Asylums are still creepy today. And I admire the research you so lovingly did for this one. Oh, and From Hell was aces.

I had an aunt who was committed to a very scary asylum in Alabama back in the 60s. It wasn't quite on the level of Bedlam, but it was close.

Fine creepy tale, Icy. Love this one!

Icy Sedgwick said...

Craig - I think we often look back at the past with a degree of nostalgia but we often forget about the murkier parts. Things might be rough now but we have made a lot of advances.

Chloe - I'm sure that, in times past, I certainly would have been, unless I'd agreed to conform.

Grace - I actually really enjoy all the research because I find it really interesting. Well, I only do fictions like these for the parts of history that fascinate me anyway - you'll never get me writing one about the history of thimbles in revolutionary France!

Anonymous said...

Excellent story, Icy. I studied literature from this period in college and you've captured the tone and the real horror of Bedlam during that time. I imagine shutting inconvenient people away in asylums still happens today, even though the conditions of the hospitals have improved and they're drugged to keep them quiet.

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Icy. I love how incorporate real history into this one. The truth of what happened in those places is so much worse than anything we could come up with on our own.

Steve Green said...

I really enjoyed reading this story, I liked it from the very first lines.

How would you convince anyone that you were sane from the confines of an asylum cell, either in days gone by... or now?

Jason Coggins said...

You had me reaching for my copy of "From Hell" with this gem, Icy. Cunning & excellently executed. On another note entirely: we're kidding ourselves if we think our treatment of mental illness is much improved since Bedlam days.

Anonymous said...

Great story, I was thinking of From Hell from the beginning. The dialogue is particularly good.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Vandamir - We have very few asylums left now in the UK. A lot of them were closed in the 1980s so people are either seen as out patients, or spend short periods in out-patient wards. I still can't help thinking they don't get the attention they need.

Danni - I think that in a lot of ways, that's what makes it worse.

Steve - Exactly! It brings to mind the episode of the Simpsons when Homer is committed for wearing a pink shirt and then letting Bart answer his 'sanity' questionnaire for him, although at least he got a piece of paper saying he was sane.

Jason - Well doctors don't treat patients by bleeding them (I hope!!) but I still think it's an under-funded, under-researched and under-attended branch of medicine. I was on a waiting list for nine months to see a therapist, yet it took me three weeks to see a physio.

Placebythefire - Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is a really great story! So descriptive and really chilling, especially as it's based in fact. Really believable dialogue too. I loved this!

Unknown said...

Nice story. Always a rich subject, and an interesting period, too. The last line hits the spot.

Anonymous said...

I nearly stopped reading any more friday flash today, but allowed myself one more. Great stuff Icy. I agree with lots of comments: the dialogue works so well, it has a contemporary resonance yet is based in history. My mother was unlucky enough to spend time in psychiatric units, thankfully the modern ones are not like Bedlam, but the need to be believed by someone and the fear of not being heard are still very real. I think your visitor saw sanity where others saw madness. Your great story asks the question: 'just who are the mad ones?'

Pamila Payne said...

You really have a talent for historical fiction. I loved this, though it was a sad tale. It's a subject I have great interest in.

Mari said...

Fantastic scenery and dialogue Icy! Since I'm not a native speaker, I'm wondering if the Queen would speak in such manner. It reminded me of My Fair Lady before the protagonist was turned into a "Lady". Either way this is great stuff!

It's horrible what was done and *is* still done nowadays to psychiatric patients. I have a schizophrenic aunt that refuses to be visited because of the horrible conditions of the place where she stays from time to time, and it's a "good one"! Only her mother and brothers are allowed to go there, and I thank her for this. uh

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Don't some people still treat their relatives and unwanted this way?
Completely engrossing, Icy; doubly so since it's based on a true story.
Kudos to you!

Alan W. Davidson said...

That's a great look at what was happening to folks 100 years ago. Some really compelling descriptions and dialogue, Icy. I noticed that 'Ann Crook' nod right off. Well done.

John Wiswell said...

Waited for the #spokensunday version, to flip between audio and textual versions. It's interesting how quickly your dialogue reads on the page, as opposed to listening to it at a normal spoken pace. You have a knack for character that comes into the prose even before a body gets to listen to it read in an affected voice.

If you'd like feedback, one thing that appears quickly in the audio is how unnecessary many of the dialogue tabs are. "asked the visitor." and so-on. They already come after someone has spoken, so we should have guessed who most of the speakers were. When you read them in the recordings you paused awkwardly between the dialogue and the tab, so it sounded like they didn't belong there. How does it feel when you're reading them?

Anonymous said...

Great story. So dark and sad. Insane asylums have always creeped me out and this one is no exception.

Crystal said...

This was so very well done. So very sad too.

A. S. Boudreau said...

I love this piece. I love the dialect and dialogue. I am always a fan of historical fiction.

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