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Louise Couper

The Daughter's Tale

Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.

C S Lewis "The Allegory of Love"


Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.

Oscar Wilde "De Profundis"


Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.

Proverbs 4:23


Prologue

The clay was stacked in a long, brown ridge.  Black, slimy gobs of muck oozed out here and there.

"It's from the old coffins," the gravedigger said.  He was putting in the green plastic lining in case we saw anything that would give us a fright.

I stayed outside the church and listened to them say what a wonderful woman she'd been, how she'd lived a blameless life, bore two children, worked hard.

All lies.  They knew as well as I did what she was, how she destroyed.  But they didn't care enough to say a word when she was alive and now that she was dead, they were salving their consciences.

Pure and simple bad, was what she was.

Some of them spoke of "mitigating circumstances", how times were hard and life was tough and you had to match that.  But just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to be cruel; just because you've no food to give your children doesn't mean you can't give them love.

When the mumbling was finished the brown shape of the coffin appeared at the church door, was lifted over the step and wheeled to the waiting pit.  Everyone drizzled after it.  No one bothered to dress up, no one said much.  She wasn't the kind to inspire affection.

Chapter 1

On Tuesdays a lady comes in, bustly voice bouncing off the crumbly walls, shouting at us to open a window, turn down the heat, get our act together, get the chairs out, the kettle on, the tables cleared.  Time for the dried flower arrangements.

But we couldn't give a fuck.  One day's the same as the next.  We're parked here for the duration while they electrocute us in the head and try out different pills.  Got a pink one with a green stripe last time.  New fella, Dr. Weaver.  Beard.  Nice.  Big prick.  Saw it poking about when he stretched across me.  Bernie says they're all like that, inside and out.  Only ones not like that are in the zoo she says.  What makes this place any different says I.  Well, she says, putting her arms on her hips, letting the fag droop, her eye misty in the distance, the bars here are in our head!

We both have a good laugh then, before the Matron comes.  She tells us to behave, we're just trying it on, her husband works an eighty-hour week and between the both of them there's just enough to pay the mortgage, the baby-sitter, the gardener, the cleaning lady and a tip to the dustman at Christmas.  Then Bernie gives me a look.  We've got it to a fine art: eyes disappear into our heads, go dizzy, spread out our arms and whizz about till she catches us on the cusp and sends us against the wall.  Bloody half-wits she calls us.  You see, she thinks we're stupid.  But we're just only mad.

I like Mondays best.  Sunday visiting is over, sweets all eaten, crying stopped.  It's the crying I can't abide.  Goes into the heart of you, you just want to scream and break a window.  But if you do that, you've had your chips.  It's the black hole then.  They give you the bombers.  Knock you for six.  Green slime comes towards you, catches your feet and drags you into the canal.  Bernie says there's alligators there.  But I only ever saw leather shoes and plastic handbags.  Bernie says it's nearly impossible to tell a lady alligator from a man one.  You've to stick a digit you know where, she says, it's the only way.

Go to hell, I say to her.  Go to hell.  But when I saw the flames gobble her up I got sorry and smiled.  How do you know that, I asked.  Wasn't I down under, with the million flies trying to suck the blood from me bones and men in trucks trying to kill me.

Is that why you're here? I axed.  Nearly she said.

First time I heard tell any of all that.  She keeps a tight lip and sniffy nose does Bernie.  She lifted her skirt.  A black and brown scabby thing stretched from the end of her pink knickers to the middle of her leg.  Jaysus! I said.  Who done it?

He had a knife, crazy eyes and madness, she said.  He dug it into me.  Was that on account of you saying no?  Me!  Never said no in me life.  Only glad to get it, didn't much mind who.  No.  He was just mad.  That's the pot calling the kettle black! I said to her.

She did her eye-turning bit then all you could see was the whites, her lips all drawn back like a dog on the prowl.  Christ don't do that, gives me the shivers, I said.  But on and on she goes till she's got a right piece of fire going, with the hair all tossed about, like one of them flamenco dancers.

Matron comes in later, two of the lads with her, and they put a stop to her.

I just stayed on the chair at the window and rocked and rocked till it was all over and Bernie was lying in bed, quiet as a baby, the telly on and all the rest of them with their mouths open watching it.  Dinner long past and I didn't notice.  But I feel hungry now.  Went then and took some of Bernie's biscuits from her drawer.  She'll never notice a thing.

There is no doubt in the world but it's lonely inside.  There's plenty of people, all right but it's lonely.  Black lonely.  They tell us to bring God into our lives, offer up our sufferings, we're God's innocents.  That's when Bernie does her eye-ball disappearing act and I hold my breath so we're helped out of the church, into the fresh air.

It's the "field work" I like best.  Down among the worms and spiders.

Bags I lifting the stones, we shout going down the stoney path we made last year with the rain teeming down.  Underneath live the spiders, holy ones with crosses on their bellies.  Araneus diadematus the gardener said are their real names.  First to find old diddy gets to keep him.  I got two last week.  Kept them in my pocket all day and then, when the tea was over, Bernie brought a fly caught on the window and we put the two together inside a matchbox.  The mother of all battles goes on.  The spider always wins.  Even with a wasp.  Matron asked us what we were playing at.  I says it's old diddy having a bit of a scrap.  But she wouldn't look.

We were just digging our hands into the sopping clay, the weather streaming down our faces, when a shout went down the line for "Lucy," though there's some that can only grunt but after a few years you get to know what they mean.  Anyway, they're all staring at me.  Gardener gives the thumbs up, so off I go with a new nurse who's carrying an umbrella.  I told her the rain doesn't hurt.  She said the inspector's here and galloped off ahead of me.

It's to the front office I'm brought.  Last time I was here was when Bernie got a bit cheeky and I put a knife to her neck.  No one messes with me.  Something snapped a long time ago. Like knicker elastic that's overstretched, you can't bring it back.

Dr Weaver was in the big yellow chair, his proper suit on, his hair combed.  The inspector had his back to the window.  Without turning, he asked me was I Lucy.  Yes, I am, always was and always will be, like God, I said.

I'm very interested in your case he says.

What's that, says I.

Then he turned round.  Big man, staring eyes, hollows below them like a corpse, at least like the only one I saw.

"Your case, your history.  You've been here a long time.  We've had a radical reappraisal of resource allocation so Dr Weaver and I assess each patient in strict rotation.  We've got to you.  We don't think you should be here."

Dr Weaver looks down at his blotter, pulling out the hairs in his beard.

I was rocking so hard my knees banged off the table.  But I like it here, I says, the diddies, Bernie, the crocodiles.  All the whole lot of it all went through my head.

"You're going to kill me," I told him.

"No, no.  Nothing like that."  He laughed at me.  "We're going to set you free."

Insides started to come out.  I rushed to the toilet, sat on it for ages.  Matron came shouting around.

"What's happened to you, Lucy?  Tell Matron all about it."

Go fuck yourself I tell her.  Stick your tongue up your arse.

No need to be vulgar, Lucy.  We're all just trying to help you.

Then leave me alone, I said to them.  But, they couldn't.  They got the big fellas to bring me out of the toilet, up the stairs with everything showing, under the shower with me,  and me shouting and screaming till my hair nearly fell out.  Dr Weaver was waiting outside with something tasty in his big syringe.  He pushed the stuff in.

Bernie came to the bed at teatime.  God, what happened?    Did they give you the green slime? she asked.  But my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth.  Her brown eyes understood.  She gave me a big kiss on the cheek.  I closed my eyes then and the green slime came snaking towards me, a big river of it, coming into my mouth and down into my stomach.  People are sitting on it, waving sticks and telling me to open my mouth and let them in.  It's the man with the staring eyes, Matron with her big bosoms, the crooked gardener and all the diddies in the world.

When I wake up old Mrs White has a cold cloth on my head.

Now, child, take it easy.

She's the best in the world when you're stretched out and helpless.  She even gave me her chocolate biscuit and one of the jellies her daughter brings her every Sunday.

There, there child.  Don't stir yourself.

She edges a fat orange jelly into my mouth.  Give that a good suck now and you'll feel better.  Nothing like something sweet for a little babby.

She has me in tears then, thinking of her little baby they say died when Mrs White was on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.  She was fasting and singing hymns while the baby at home was dying of the pneumonias.  Mrs White blew her gasket.  Top of her head got so hot Bernie says her hat went on fire.  She's baldy now.  The hair never grew back.

I don't want to go, Mrs White, I tell her, when I've the life sucked from the jelly.  None of us does, she says, 'specially the babbies, 'specially the babbies.  Then she nearly drives me crazy with Hush-a-Bye-Baby.  Brings back me mother and the blinding heat and all that.  No, Mrs White, don't go on.  Shut up, willya.

Matron then came over, pushed a green one with yellow stripe into my mouth.  Mrs White starts to scream, pulling at the hair that's not there.  And then everything goes black.  Black.

But only for a minute, till the sun comes out, hot and scorching on my back, the sand burning blisters into my feet.  The water is miles away, beyond the sandy ridges.  The mother woman was rubbing her scrawny arms with oily stuff from a bottle.  The father man was asleep, face red.  The brother boy called Peter tossed sand into my face, into my eyes, into my hair.  I scream and scream till I'm sick.  The man takes my doll Raggy and tosses her away over the dunes, far away so I can't see her.  Go follow her, he says, spit coming down his mouth.  I try and try but the sand gobbles me up.  People look at me.  They want to grab me, hold onto me and I'll never find Raggy.  It's dark then.  Raggy is lost, gone forever.  Killed.  My Raggy is dead.

She's only a stupid doll, falling to bits the mother woman said.

But I loved her.  After that I had no one.

Mrs White is mopping up my tears when I wake up.  Matron is standing at the end of the bed.

"I'll have to get the doctor," she says.  "We've never had breakthrough crying with that medication.  Some deeply rooted hysteria bursting out.  Pity, you seemed better adjusted this last while."

"Don't let them send me out, Matron."  I could only whisper but Mrs White repeated everything.

"Well now, the Inspector thinks you're well enough to go back into the world."

Back into the world!  The one I escaped from, the one with the noisy traffic, the smells, the supermarkets.  And the father man and mother woman.  The heat and the hammer.

They still there, Matron?  Who's that, dear?  The man and woman.  Well, a bit older now but still lovely people.  Often phone to ask about you.  They always send you a birthday present, don't they?

What use is a Walkman to me?  I don't want to listen to hymns!  Gave it to Bernie.  Had us in stitches wanking to Faith of our Fathers but Matron said it was blastemy and to stop it at once or we'd all drop down dead.  But Bernie crept into my bed that night and I did it for her and she for me.  And we were still alive the next day.

Matron had finished her shouting and Mrs White saw I was sitting up and no more use to her as a dying child.

Bernie came over.  "Got them all on the go, so you have, Lucy," Bernie said.  "All talking about you.  You're a pain in the arse when you're dead like that.  No fun in you.  I had to drive meself crazy to get a bit of life in the place."

You've no patience, Bernie.

What's the use in patience when you could be dead any minute?

You know, Bernie, they threw away poor Raggy, best doll ever lived.  Lovely smile.  Blue eyes.  And they want me to go back?  Even after the hammering.

That was good.  Tell me that one again.

She wriggled her bum onto the bed.

Well, it was a Friday, I said.  The whole house was out shopping, except me.  I was minding the dinner, lamb stew.  Don't let them potatoes fall to bits, they  told me.  Well, that was the devil's own job.  Nothing would do them but they'd melt into the gravy, then the meat went black and stuck to the bottom of the pot.  The smell was something to behold.

Christ Almighty she's burnt the bloody dinner, the woman shouted soon as she opened the door.  The man came rushing towards me.  He flung his bag of bottles onto the chair but they slipped onto the floor.  Now look what you've done, you little bitch, he said.  She grabbed the pot and poured water onto the smoke and that made the smell worse.  Christ Almighty, that's the dinner gone up in smoke, she shouted.  I was fierce hungry, so I started to cry.  Crying is it? she said.  I'll give you something to cry about.  She cracked the pot against the side of my skull.  There was an explosion and I fell against the chair with the bottles and after that, I can't remember.

"Course you can!  That's not the one, though that's a good one.  The one about the hammer."

But I didn't want to remember that one.  So, I said I was tired and closed my eyes.  Bernie landed me a big thump in the middle of the stomach.  Sometimes I hate her but I know she doesn't really mean it.

Anyways, said Bernie, the tom-toms say the queerfella who wants you out of here won't be back for a week.

Now she tells me.  Could have been doing with that news hours ago.

© Louise Couper 2016