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Roused by the impending darkness, the bats swooped and circled over the grounds of Highmarsh Psychiatric Hospital. They did not falter in their graceful arcs and twists as Michael Henley, raper and murderer of young girls, leapt up from the bed next to mine and thrust his pale arm through the bars of the window and screamed.

Malformed trees scratched at the red brick of the hospital walls, their bark darkening with the sinking sun until they became blacker than the night. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the feel of her lips but could not; it was lost, buried under too many things that I dared not disturb. Terrible sounds filled the night: crying, screaming, flesh being pounded against stone, masturbation, yelling. But these outpourings of emotion served as a distraction, as something to cling to as the nightmares gnawed at the corners of my mind. It was the darkness that we all feared, us patients, us lunatics.

Earl was waiting for me at the table he liked, in the corner of the canteen, away from the others. He jumped up excitedly when he saw me, waving his hand and bouncing from one foot to the other, ominously.
“Go to the toilet,” I said, placing my breakfast tray across from his.
“I don’t need to go.”
I placed my hand on him, and he flinched but did not remove his arm. His eyes were watery as always. He glanced at me for a moment and then looked away, dabbing at his tears with his shirt sleeve, sullied from sustained mopping.
“You won’t go anywhere?”
“I’ll be here.”
“Promise Rhys?”
“I promise.”

With both hands clasped to his crutch, he darted between the tables, spinning to avoid a collision with an orderly, and crashed through the toilet door.
I ate my stew and remembered the summer my sister and I had stayed with Aunt Gwen in Rhossili: the hot sand that had burned our feet, the tepid water of the rock pools, Cerys’s giggles as she fled the crashing waves. For three whole weeks, I had existed without my nightmares; I had been normal.

It was Monday, and as the clock struck 10:00, the hospital staff tested the alarms. The two tone din of the World War II siren wailed around the grounds. Some of the patients began to scream and were comforted by the staff. Others did what they could to block out the sound: covering their ears, pulling shirts over their heads, plunging their faces into pillows, repeating some fragment of a song over and over and over again.

As the sirens changed to a single tone for a further two minutes, signalling the all-clear, I watched Old Walter dancing, holding some old memory of a woman in his arms. He smiled as he traversed the stained floor in his slippers, twirling his imaginary partner around. They would bury him in the north-west corner with the rest. There was something of those that perished in the hospital that remained, some vestige of them that walked among us still, shuffling along the corridors.

I left the valley shortly after my eighteenth birthday, leaving behind the river, the woods where I smoked my first cigarette, and the place where I rested my head on Bronwyn’s lap under the gnarled trunks of the old oaks and learned how to laugh.

My father was an English literature teacher, respected by the community. As the youngest son of an itinerant farmer, he was proud of the status he had attained, and we were never to do or say anything that might undermine his position. He buried the truth beneath the mundaneness of everyday life; his sins lay unspoken between my mother and me.

Earl was talking, but I could not hear his words—my morning Prozac was taking effect. My eyes were getting heavy; the hospital was fading, replaced with the oaks from my childhood. I could feel their seamed, knotted bark and Earl’s voice was drowned under the sound of Bronwyn laughing.

She was standing before me with her arms wrapped around my waist. She bit her lip as she smiled. I brushed her hair back and kissed her nose. Then her face contorted with revulsion and she drifted backwards and then she was gone. I was on the bridge again. The red paint of the railings flaked off revealing the cold steel underneath as I stood on them, wobbling in the wind. The river below was black, flecked with white as waves crashed against rocks and it whispered to me, calling me, welcoming me.

I awoke with a snort. There was a white envelope on my lap.
“You’ve been out for almost an hour. So who’s it from?” Earl asked, picking the envelope up from my knees and waving it in my face. “You never get letters.”
I snatched it from his hand. “Neither do you.”
“Maybe I just don’t show them to you. Did you think about that? Hah! No!”
Earl leapt up, whooping and punching the air. “Earl one Rhys Zero,” he chanted.
“Earl,” I snapped. “You are an incontinent pyromaniac. That’s why no one writes to you.”

Earl’s celebrations came slowly to a halt, like a life-size toy whose batteries had just run down. He looked at me with his watery eyes, his chin began to tremble and then he turned away. He walked slowly at first, then with one hand squeezing the front of his trousers he picked up the pace, and then he was running for the toilet. I punched my leg. It was not his fault. I had gone too far. I turned the envelope over in my hand and walked down the corridor to the main entrance.

The fir trees that loomed above me blocked the sun, and I rubbed my hands together for warmth. I sat with my back against the stone fountain; the water had been turned off years before to prevent drowning, and now the cherub, clasping at his non-functioning penis, just looked ashamed. I took a deep breath and tore open the envelope.

I read the letter several times. I contemplated ripping it up, tossing it into the fountain, eating it, flushing it down the toilet, but unable to decide an appropriate fate, I tucked it into my pocket. My father had suffered a massive heart attack.

I told Dr Griffith, my responsible clinician, and he made some calls. The doctor regrettably informed him that my father had passed away that morning. Dr Griffith was concerned that the therapy hadn’t had sufficient time, that the memories at the root of everything were still too painful, that they had yet to be processed and assimilated by my mind and that confrontation could provoke another dissociative fugue or worse another suicide attempt. He eventually signed my release papers, granting me leave, on the condition that I phone him each evening. Failure to do so would result, he said, in him contacting the authorities who would bring me back, by force if necessary.


Disfigured Liberty


A Psychiatric Hospital, a London bomb, an abusive father, a hedonistic rock star, bereaved parents, and a suicide bomber, come together for this literary sojourn into the grimy depths of sadness and regret.

“Vividly drawn dark stories”

“Dark and compelling”