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Cured

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, that feeling, buried under too many things that I dared not disturb. The night was filled with terrible sounds: crying, screaming, flesh being pounded against stone, masturbation, yelling. Yet they served me, these outpourings of emotion, 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 his 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.

Eating the lukewarm cawl, a Welsh stew made with lamb and leeks, I 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 white crashing waves. For three whole weeks, I had been extricated from my nightmares; I had been normal.

It was Monday and as the clock struck 10:00 the alarms were tested. The two tone blare of the World War II sirens wailed around the grounds. Some of the patients began to scream and were comforted by the staff. Others did what they could to block the sound out: 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, clasping some ancient memory of a woman in his arms. He smiled as he traversed the stained floor in his slippers, twirling his imaginary partner around. When he died his body would be buried in the north-west corner with the rest. There was something of those that died in the hospital that remained, some vestige of them that walked among us still, shuffling along the corridors.

I had left the valley shortly after my eighteenth birthday, leaving the river where I caught trout and salmon; the woods where I had smoked my first cigarette, where I had found security in the solitude of the trees, where I had 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. The truth was buried beneath the mundaneness of everyday life; his sins lay unspoken between my mother and I.

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 a deep 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 informed Dr Griffith, my responsible clinician, and he made some calls but was regrettably informed that my father had passed away that very 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 direct 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 the authorities being contacted and me being forcefully brought back.

I tried to apologise to Earl before I left but could not find him. I checked the ward where he slept, the recreation room, the library and the toilets, but he was not there. As I waited for the taxi I expected him to leap from the shadows, grinning, as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had been said; but he did not come.

The bus climbed up along the valley side, following Cefn Gryngul, a narrow white ridge, that ran twelve miles from Pontypridd to Hirwaun Common. The road was bordered by grey stone-worked walls and beyond them lay the woods that had provided refuge throughout my childhood.

The bus entered the village, passing along the row of terraced houses, built stretching up and along the mountainside. It left me near the post office and I took a short cut along a sheep-path through a small grove of trees, my suit jacket hung over my arm. As I crested the hill, I saw St. Eluned’s Church below me.

The sound of an organ floated through the air before being drowned out by the voices of the choir. I put my jacket on and entered through the south entrance. The Celtic cross was still hanging on the wall. It had been discovered, buried in the grounds, and had been carbon-dated to the 8th century. The stone pendant had held me captivated as a child, transporting me to another time. I would be a Celtic warrior, strong and fearsome, trekking across the valleys to some great battle, my sword jangling against my muscled thigh. Running my fingers over the cross again, I tried to recall the images that it had once invoked but there was nothing: no glory, no brave warrior, just the drone of the vicar from inside the church.

I waited for the Amen, signalling the end of the prayer, and pushed open the heavy door. I walked down the aisle to where the stooped form of my mother stood with my sister’s arm draped over her shoulders. They smiled and I stood between them. Cerys squeezed my arm. My mother flipped open a hymn book to the correct page for me but I could find no voice to sing. I mouthed the words to Abide with Me. Geraint Jones addressed the congregation, recounting my father’s accomplishments, describing what a devout Christian and earnest father and husband he had been.

Geraint stepped down and Cerys stood before the assembled mourners and she looked older, no longer a child. In the six months since I had left the village, she had become a woman. She cleared her throat and read Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. The silence of the church grew heavier as the metre of the poem and the timbre of Cerys’s voice intensified. I stared at the oak casket. I wondered if my father had fought against entering that goodnight if he had raged, raged, raged against the dying of the light—I wondered if he had lamented his sins.

My father’s brother, Uncle Gavin, beckoned me to join the pallbearers. I tried to refuse but hands thrust me forward and then the coffin was on my shoulder. Verdi’s Ave Maria played as we marched slowly into the cemetery.

I watched as my father was lowered into the ground. Couples comforted each other, with an arm, with a shoulder, with a simple handkerchief. My mother and sister clasped hands. I stood apart, my face grim and my eyes dry.

The congregation returned to my family home at the foot of the mountain. I wanted to escape, to be alone, but could not bring myself to enter the bedroom that was saturated with so many memories. I watched as the mourners, a tide of black suits, swarmed around the tables, devouring the food and drink, their voices a low hum. Through the crowd, I saw Bronwyn standing in the corner. She smiled and pointed toward the door.

A group of men, smoking in the garden, ceased their conversation as I stepped into the hazy glow of the early evening. They did not speak but merely nodded. I followed Bronwyn up the stone steps, past the fish pond, to the back of the garden where the apple tree stood. She flopped onto the grass and fished a small bottle of scotch from her purse as if she were taking out a lipstick. Taking a large gulp she grimaced and passed the bottle to me.

“Rhys?” she asked softly, looking away as she bit her lip. “Was there someone else?”

“No. Why would you think that?”

“You just took off.”

I swallowed a mouthful of scotch. “I was in hospital.”

She looked shocked. “Why didn’t your mother tell me?”

“Because it was a mental hospital. I tried to kill myself.”

“She still should have told me.” She paused and taking the bottle from my hand, she took another large mouthful. “How?”

“I jumped off a bridge.”

Slim and sensual, looking like a woodland elf with her pointed ears, large dark eyes, full red lips and feline features, Bronwyn took my hand in hers.

“Why didn’t you talk to me?”

I closed my eyes and felt her hand on my face. She pulled my head toward her and with my check pressed against her long neck, I cried.

I don’t know how long we sat there, Bronwyn and I, beneath the apple tree in my parent’s garden, but the shadows had grown long and Bronwyn was shivering. I placed my jacket around her shoulders and we returned to the house.

The guests had departed and Cerys was in the kitchen, washing the plates and refrigerating the leftover food. With her puffy eyes reflecting the light that had just been turned on, hair tied tightly in a bun, my mother opened her arms to me but I pushed her away.

“My little boy,” she said. Her chin was trembling.

“I’m not a little boy anymore.”

“I know.” She rubbed at her arms as if a cold wind had suddenly blown through the room and I wondered if it were my father’s spirit, watching us. She walked forwards again, stopping just in front of me, her head barely reaching my chest.

“Why don’t you come home? The doctor said you need a protective environment.”

“You never protected me.”

“Of course I did.”

“You never did anything to stop him.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You know what he did to me.”

“What are you talking about?”

I was pacing now, sweating. I tried to recall the relaxation techniques I had learned in the hospital. I closed my eyes and imagined I was lying in the woods again with my head on Bronwyn’s lap. I took a deep breath.

“You know he came to my room at night.”

“Your father?”

I nodded.

“He liked to read to you.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“What are you saying?” she asked, her eyes sharpening. She backed away.

“He made me touch him.”

The colour drained from my mother’s face. She reeled back and slumped into a chair.

“Stop it,” she whispered clasping her head.

“He made me put it in my mouth.”

Her hands covered her ears. She began to recite the Bible, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.”

“He raped me.”

“No!” she leapt to her feet.

Lean and furious, looking like a rabid dog, with her loose jowls, wild eyes, barred teeth and spit running down her chin, she pounded my chest and arms. “You filthy animal. How could you? Today of all days. At his funeral!”

Bronwyn attempted to restrain her from behind, grabbing her wrists, but my mother fought with tenacity. Eventually, her attack subsided but the hatred in her eyes remained.

“You are mad,” she rasped.

#

I lay in my bed, the bed of the psychiatric hospital, and stared at the cracks in the yellowed ceiling. Michael Henley was masturbating under his sheets. The sound of his rattled breath brought in the dawn. The room was already suffused with lilac grey when footsteps sounded, echoing down the corridor, and the heavy metal doors clanked open for patients desperate for their medication. For some minutes I dejectedly dozed, and Bronwyn was an elf lying in a field of flowers, and my mother smiled as my father moved inside me, and birds were busy in the trees, and then Michael Henley ejaculated with a gasp.

I was eating my pancakes alone at the corner table when Earl peered sheepishly around the door. He shuffled toward me, his head down. He stood behind the chair but did not speak.

“Earl, what I said. I’m so sorry.”

He dabbed at his eyes and looked up and a fleeting smile passed across his cracked lips.

“I was upset. But I had no right to say those things to you.”

“How was the funeral?” he asked pulling out the chair and sitting as if nothing had happened.

“As good as could be expected.”

He nodded sagely as he chewed his pancakes that were drowning in a thick layer of maple syrup.

“Anything happen while I was gone?”

“I had another accident,” he mumbled, spraying crumbs across the table. “One more time and I will have to wear a nappy.”

“They’re just bluffing.”

I saw Bronywn arrive from the window. She was wearing dark glasses, a blood-red wool coat and long black boots. We walked in the garden, through the gold and vermilion leaves that eddied around our feet. A man, skulking by the perimeter wall, slipped behind a bush in the south-east corner as I looked over my shoulder. I hesitated but he did not reappear.

“I asked if your mother and sister wanted a lift,” Bronwyn said, tucking her arm through mine and urging me forward. “Cerys had to work and your mother said she had a doctors appointment.”

“They will never believe me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was ashamed.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed about.”

“I know that here,” I said, tapping my temple.

“I’m sorry.”

“You haven’t done anything.”

“I was the reason you ran away.” She stopped and clasped my face in her hands. “That night in my bedroom,” she said. “You went rigid. It was like you were not even there.”

“I’m sorry. It’s called dissociation.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Promise you won’t get angry.”

I nodded.

“It doesn’t matter either way. I am here for you no matter what.”

“Spit it out.”

“Do you like women?”

“You’re asking me if I’m gay?”

“I would rather you told me now. Before I fall for you any further.”

I hugged her close. “I honestly don’t know,” I answered. “That’s one of the things the therapists are helping me to unravel.”

“So what kind of treatment are you getting?”

“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy.”

Bronwyn looked at me blankly and I laughed.

“I recall the incidents and using noises or visual cues the doctor kind of distracts my brain. It reduces the distress I feel when I remember what happened.”

“Is it helping.”

“Not so much.”

After saying goodbye to Bronwyn, I could hear crying as I entered the recreation room. It was Earl. He was huddled in the corner of the room with Lee, a young nurse with piercings in his lip, standing over him. At first, I could not make out what Lee was clutching and then I saw the dark stain on Earl’s trousers and the glistening pool on the floor.

“Please,” Earl begged. “It won’t happen again. I promise.”

The complete story can be read in the anthology below


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