The village in which I grew up was particularly notable for one thing, which I'll come to in a moment.
The main road approached from around the lake (which shared the village's name) to the north. The road was bordered on both sides by big, set back houses with deep, lavish gardens and two car garages. Parallel lines of Scots Pines behind wide pavements flanked the road, which opened out to a small village green with a row of shops to the side. I used to love the bookshop, run by a friendly bearded man called Peter. I'd lose myself in the cool space, sitting down on the floor between the shelves to read. Beyond the shops lay more houses, and a bridge over the railway branch line. The station itself lay round a curve, fronted by a small car park with adjacent general store, and a neatly bordered and planted municipal park across the road. Follow the road further and you'd leave the village, encountering a string of similar villages before you reached the county town.
Behind the park opposite the station was a small block of flats, 1930s, with metal-framed windows, and beyond that was the Sanatorium, the village's aforementioned claim to fame.
(Or, 'the loony bin', as the lady in the greengrocer used to call it.)
Incredibly, this huge, decrepit hulk of an institution was still operational even when I was growing up, its five-turreted Victorian Gothic tower dominating the village - you could not help but see the dark mass looming into the sky from all points north, south, east, west and between.
That's why people used to refer to the village as 'The Nuthouse' (and other less favourable names).
You'd see the people from the mental hospital in the village most afternoons. I guess the more functional ones were let out for walks and exercise in the Sanatorium's expansive grounds and beyond. I remember seeing them as I'd run to the newsagents to buy a comic after school, shuffling around in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and slippers. Miss Williams, our primary school headmistress would warn us to keep away from them, but we'd sit on the low wall by the station car park, licking our ice lollies in our itchy grey school shorts, and stare at them as they emerged, wild-haired, baffled, from the gate and made their shambly, muttery, boggle-eyed way around town. Usually a white uniformed nurse would be accompanying them, but sometimes not.
Funny that my most vivid memories of the Sanatorium and its denizens are all tinged with the bright sunshine and blue skies of summer. The long school holidays when we'd hang around the village on our BMXs doing nothing special always seemed to coincide with when the "loonies" would be out in force.
They particularly liked the little park opposite the station and would huddle in there in pairs, sitting in the covered wooden gazebo under the cherry blossom trees like slightly dribbly lovers, smoking their cigarettes or just sucking their gums, or whatever they used to do.
As a result of course, we were all terrified of the park and would dare each other to run in there while the loonies were out. It's not that we were scared of them per se. I think we knew even then that they were mostly harmless. But when you're small, you fear things like lunacy; the possibility that all is not well with the world of people. I guess a fear of a kind of living death. Unformed fear. Inchoate.
The Sanatorium went up in flames when I was ten. Apparently one of the patients had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in hand.
No one died, but it was the beginning of the end for the place, a private institution that had been imagined and realised by an eccentric Victorian philanthropist who'd made his fortune selling patent medicines to bilious ladies in the Home Counties. He'd had a particular interest in the emerging study of mental illness and had built this grand folly with all his worldly resources.
For a while the hospital malingered, a charred and wheezing shadow of its robust former self, until two years later the wrought iron gates closed forever. The village emerged from its baleful shadow and stumbling ghosts stopped appearing in our public spaces on sunny summer afternoons.
For a long time, the building remained unused, rotting away, despite its Grade 1 listed status. You could see daylight through holes in the roof of the massive tower where the birds would mass. I used to imagine, squinting up from my parents' back garden, that the big black crows were the revenant spirits of deceased patients, doomed forever to croak and chatter amongst the wreckage of their last home, picking at scraps of the fragmented memories of their confused final years.
So seasons came and passed. Rain fell though the damaged roof and soaked the old place to the foundations, and sun came and baked it dry again. The mummified Sanatorium stood off from our village like a fossil beast, waiting to be discovered.
Then one summer, I was reacquainted with the dead Sanatorium.
I'd been up in London at college for a year but had temporarily moved back to the village for the two month summer holidays to save money. My parents were away for a month on one of their big driving holidays so I had the place pretty much to myself. It was an absolutely glorious summer, hot, long and mellow. I had a few friends round, writing songs, smoking dope, that kind of thing. Like you do. Neighbours would complain, as they should, and I'd ignore them as usual. Like I cared. I was 19.
With so much time and space on my hands, I could structure it as I pleased and I spent many of those long summer days dressed in my growing wardrobe of women's clothes. I felt like I was deconstructing myself and building an alternate, female world around me. I shaved my legs and armpits for the first time, and was almost knocked out by the sensation.
I spent days, even a whole week, without lapsing back from my girlish identity. I'd rise as a girl, get dressed and made up as a girl, shave my legs if they were becoming stubbled. Just existing,
I was making myself over. Trying to escape. Sometimes, I had close scrapes. People would ring the doorbell, and I would scurry and hide, secretly wanting to be discovered.
One night, I stayed up, dressed simply in my favourite black camisole and panties, feeling secure and happy in my female identity, and I knew that it was time to go out (admittedly, at three am the risks of outing were low).
I dressed carefully, putting on my best black stockings, a tight black jersey thigh-length skirt, an orange turtleneck tank top, with bra and padding beneath, and a cut off grey jacket with boxy shoulders. I put on full foundation and powder, matted down lipstick, and subtle eye-make-up and brushed my fringe into a girly style. Jewellery and perfume topped it off.
It wasn't much of an outfit, but I felt gorgeous, stepping out of the house into the chilly semi-darkness.
I walked down to the bottom of the road and through the stile, then made my way across the playing field that led to the village green. The sky was imperceptibly lightening; rosy streaks appearing low to the East, and I felt visible, but secure. I wanted people to see me. On the road several cars passed me. I wonder whether they spared me more than a glance. If anyone passed me on foot, they'd have had a good clear view. I was torn between the desire to be caught and the fear of being seen by someone I knew. What would happen?
I crossed the road and made my way down towards the railway station. The village was utterly quiet, just the clumsy click of my heels on the pavement.
From beyond a stand of pines in the park, the dark tower of the Sanatorium looked down on me, its five-turreted bulk cutting out the starlight. I wandered into the park, unsure of what I was doing, heading towards the strange little wooden gazebo on the low rise, where the strange ones had used to canoodle and mutter under the cherries.
Perhaps if I sat there I'd be transported into a new state of myself, like the people from the Sanatorium. A psychogenic fugue wherein I'd forget all the detail of who I was and how I'd come to be and discover the new self I'd felt nudging into the dark corners of my consciousness as I'd struggled to lose myself that summer...
Probably I was just sleepy.
The park itself was very enclosed, surrounded as it was by a tall hedge made from dense, sight and sound occluding leylandia. Three rough openings in the leylandia served as gates.
The tall dark shrubs made the park a secluded, occult space even in the brightest of daylight, and that, combined with the memory of the asylum people meant that there was still a frisson of uncertain fear for people of my age when faced with entering the quiet space.
In the pitch dark, cross-dressed as I was, I was absolutely terrified.
But I sat quietly in the gazebo anyway, knees pressed together. I fumbled in my small brown handbag for a cigarette and lit it, exhaling a big plume of blue smoke into the still air. I took another puff and looked at my watch. It was almost 4am.
I looked up at the tower. The sky had not yet got perceptibly lighter and yet there was some sort of glow coming from the direction of the derelict Sanatorium. I couldn't quite work out what it was, or exactly where it was coming from. The light was yellowish and seemed to emanate from near the base of the tower. The overgrown trees and undergrowth in the grounds made it difficult to tell exactly. I craned my neck, peering round the side of the gazebo, my heart thudding high in my chest.
"Well, well. If it ain't little red riding hood..." said a soft male voice very close by.
I let out a rather unladylike "AARGH!" and dropped my cigarette, whirling.
A boy was sitting next to me. Somehow, while I'd been distracted looking at the mysterious glow, he'd snuck into the gazebo and was sat there rolling a cigarette, with a big grin on his face. "Hello love," he said, "come here often?" He took a small bottle of whisky out of his hip pocket and passed it to me. I looked down at it uncomprehendingly for a while, then grabbed it, taking a deep swig. It made me feel a little bit better.
I handed the bottle back and watched him as he took a sip and replaced it in his jacket pocket. He was about my age, maybe a bit older; quite skinny and very pale, with wispy blonde hair and a dusting of acne on his jawline. He was wearing a striped t-shirt, ripped jeans over adidas trainers and a shabby black leather flight jacket. He grinned at me again and I looked away blushing furiously.
He leaned forward. "I'm Terry," he said quietly, "what's your name then?"
I lit another cigarette and looked away, trying to ignore him.
"Shy are we?" he said, sitting back again. "Never mind. We can just enjoy the night air." I glanced askance at him and saw that he had spread his arms out on the back of the gazebo bench and was leaning back, looking up at the night sky. I tried to edge away until I was pressed up against the side of the gazebo. I took another puff of smoke.
We sat in silence for a while.
Again, I noticed the yellowish glow coming from beyond the bushes. Frowning, I leaned forward, trying to see through the undergrowth somehow. Now I noticed that the light was rippling and dancing slightly, a bit like a fire. But the colour was far too cold and artificial looking for that. Had it got brighter?
I took another pull of the cigarette and glanced down. I noticed the lipstick on the filter and the polish on my long nails and was suddenly snapped back into the dangerous present. I heard the boy stirring next to me. He got closer and I smelt his whisky and tobacco breath as he whispered into my ear, "yeah. I noticed that too. Weird, innit?" I heard the flick of his lighter as he relit his rollup and I half expected to feel his hands on me when he suddenly got up, stepping out of the gazebo and looking up at the tower.
He stood there for a while, absolutely still. It reminded me of seeing the zombie like figures from the asylum when I was a child, the unearthly stillness as some of them would stand for hours in the small park in the darkening afternoons, waiting to be called back to their places of rest.
Suddenly he turned, smiling down at me. "'Ere, why don't we go and have a look?"
"How?" I breathed.
"Blimey, I thought everyone knew about the tunnel. Coming?"
I looked up at his grinning face.
"OK," I said and took his hand.
Round the side of the asylum grounds was a bramble-covered opening. I'd often cycled past it as a child without realising what it was.
Terry pulled back the prickly branches, swearing quietly under his breath, while I watched, feeling a little ridiculous in my stockings and tight skirt. Behind the brambles was a rusted iron gate, one of the doors hanging off its hinges. Beyond, I could see the top of a slimy looking set of stone steps. Terry turned and grinned. He turned sideways and squeezed himself through the gap in the gate. I gathered up my jacket and followed, trying not to touch any part of the gate. As I pushed through, I felt Terry guiding me with a hand on my waist. He seemed to hold his hand there a second longer than necessary.
I glanced into his eyes then looked quickly away. He turned and went off down the stairs. "Careful," he said, "they're a bit slippy." With a click, a light went on and I realised he'd produced a small torch from his jacket pocket.
After about twenty steps, the descent levelled off into a dank-smelling tunnel. It wasn't quite high enough to walk stood fully up and my feet began to hurt in the strappy high heel sandals I was wearing. Hunched over, I looked ahead and saw Terry's head bobbing along in the torchlight about ten feet ahead of me. The tunnel was crumbling and rubble strewn, but seemed pretty safe, all in all.
After about five hundred yards, we came to another set of steps. Spiral and iron this time. Terry was pointing his torch up into the opening. He looked at me with that cheeky grin on his face. "This leads up to a corridor behind the Great Hall," he said, "me and my mates often go in there to have a smoke. It's pretty amazing."
He started up the stairs and I followed, treading up on the soles of my sandals to prevent the heels from sticking into the holes in the ironwork. At the top was a cracked and warped wooden door. Terry shouldered it open easily and stepped through into a nondescript corridor strewn with papers and chips of cracked plaster.
Again, I followed his bobbing torchlight, which was casting bizarrely shaped shadows over the walls. At the end of the corridor, there were two doors.
One was ajar. Beyond, I saw a carpeted set of stairs heading upwards again. Terry set off up these stairs and I set off up after him.
The smell of mildew and damp in the stairwell was almost overwhelming and I had to cover my mouth and nose.
As we climbed the stairs, I began to feel peculiar.
A sense of unease that was almost physical entered me from nowhere.
I felt like a dark, heavy, cold shroud was beginning to encircle my head and tighten, imperceptibly slowly. I looked around. There was nothing peculiar around about me, but I felt that if I climbed further, the pressure would become so extreme that it would crush me.
I stopped, resting one hand on the wall, head down, breathing shallowly.
I felt sick.
I could actually feel the vomit rising in my throat.
"Hey. You OK?" I felt something on my back and looked up.
It was Terry. He'd come back down the stairs and was looking at me with a puzzled expression, one hand on my shoulder. The sensation of pressure suddenly left me, leaving a strange impression that something had just been sucked out of me at great speed. The inside of my head felt cold and hollow.
I shook my head, raising a hand to indicate I was OK and waving it vaguely towards the top of the stairwell to indicate that Terry should go on. He patted my shoulder softly and turned away. After a few more deep breaths, I followed, fumbling to light a cigarette.
We climbed up four flights of about fifteen steps each and I had no recurrence of my sudden, inexplicable head freeze. At the top, Terry waited for me and then ushered me through the open double doors.
I emerged onto a wide, wrought iron bannistered and oak-boarded walkway that went all the way around the massive Great Hall of the Sanatorium. It was absolutely breathtaking, lined on all sides by a combination of stained glass and mirrors, many now broken and scattered on the flag-stoned floor far below us. Above us was spread a vast, vaulted Gothic ceiling, Terry indicated a huge set of double doors towards the back of the hall. "Tower's through there," he said. "You can go all the way up it though the steps are well dodgy."
The Hall too was not in great shape. It was now quite bright outside and a milky bluish daylight was illuminating the interior through cracked stained glass windows. Many of the windows had large holes in them and the floor was strewn with broken glass from them and the array of mirrors that lined the walls.
Bonfires made from chopped up dining chairs had been lit and had burnt out on various parts of the floor and at one point, one of the massive wrought iron chandeliers had fallen from the ceiling and was lying in pieces amongst the ruins of a shattered banqueting table. There were several large oil portraits on the walls, most of which had been ripped and defaced.
The floor itself was strewn with a mass of files and papers. Medical records?
I felt Terry touch my arm gently. I looked up and saw him indicating I should follow him towards a grand staircase that descended from the centre of the walkway down to the floor.
"Careful," he said, "the boards are rotten in places. Walk where I walk."
I nodded and followed, being careful to watch where Terry walked. He wasn't joking. The mezzanine walkway was in a terrible condition, with person-sized holes in various places. Had previous trespassers fallen through these openings?
As we descended the stairs, still covered with the rotten remains of a luxurious carpet, I noticed the flickering light again.
It was harder to pick out in the brightening daylight, but I could still see its peculiar, artificial tone though the windows at the front of the hall. It was pulsing gently in the grounds outside. The source seemed to be hovering unsteadily about twenty feet from the ground. As we descended towards the main doors, the frequency of the pulsing seemed to get more rapid.
Terry picked quickly through the mess on the ground floor towards the main doors of the hall. I followed more slowly, looking around.
On either side of the hall, there were large doorways that obviously led into the two wings of the old hospital, where I imagined the treatment rooms and wards were.
What might this place have been like at its height? When the hall was full of men and women whom wealthy relatives had decided needed help? Probably most of them would have been terrified, perhaps only suffering from what modern diagnoses would term depression, high-functioning autism, attention deficit disorder. Cold baths daily, perhaps, and unscheduled beatings from cruel staff nurses. And after the invention of electricity, ECT was probably practiced. Terrible, I expected.
Did the carers realise they were cruel people?
Or was the relevant homily "cruel to be kind"? Would a small bird take flight every time an indignity was committed upon a person in the name of medical care? A small white bird on clapping wings, disappearing up the vast hollow of the five-turreted tower until it was lost in the gloom of the roof, to alight and roost forever, like a single bloom amongst a pale and fluttering upside- down garden of white flowers?
My head felt tight again. The yellow light was very close now. Flickering like a moth seeking the moon in a glowing bulb.
Terry was waiting for me at the door, smiling his faint smile. The yellow light was now so bright it felt like it was inside the hall, inside with us, inside my head.
"Come on love," said Terry, taking my hand again.
He pulled open the double doors.
I woke up.
I was on the floor of my parents' living room.
I had the worst headache I'd ever had.
I tried to sit up but was unable to. I'd taken my skirt and top off and was lying flat out in my camisole and knickers. I still had one shoe on. Later, I'd discover that the other was nowhere to be found.
There was an impossibly tender patch of skin under my left armpit, on the side of my ribcage.
The television was on. According to the breakfast news, it was gone six. I rubbed my eyes and tried to listen. The Iraqis had invaded Kuwait in the night. It sounded like the end of the world to me, as I listened to Kate Adie's voice, over abstract flashes on the screen showing fire, bombs and the other screaming accoutrements of war, of invasion.
I fell into a long and dreamless sleep.
Later that summer, I moved out of the village permanently to make something of myself in London.
I never saw Terry again, though I later found his whisky, tobacco and torch buried at the bottom of my underwear drawer.
The ruins of the Sanatorium were later bought up by a consortium of property developers, who converted it into a luxury housing development.
The Great Hall now houses a gymnasium and swimming pool for the residents. The tunnel was filled in.
Originally published 11 December 2005 on draGnet 4.0, this is part of the Transformer series, a loose cycle of semi-autobiographical, semi-connected short stories, which I am presenting again in its entirety over the next few weeks, including the previously incomplete "Transformer" novella itself (which *is* now complete).
The piece is unchanged except for a few small grammatical and style changes.
As I was originally writing this story, the Buncefield oil storage depot north of London was going up in flames. Reading this strange short story always reminds me of that eerie winter afternoon, the column of thick, black smoke obscuring half the sky.
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