We continue our Portsmouth Writers’ Season showcasing the best contemporary Portsmouth authors. Set in 1973, Christine Lawrence’s novel Caught in the Web tells the story of Karen, a mental hospital orderly whose obsession with an elderly patient draws her into darkness and danger. If you enjoy this first chapter read the rest of the story here.
Monday morning, nine a.m.
Karen trembled as she passed under the shadow of the clock tower at the main gates of Highclere Mental Hospital.
Walking through the long cold corridors, a pungent smell clung to the inside of her nostrils – tangible – almost solid. She felt it embedding itself into her being where it would linger for the rest of her life.
At the end of the corridor she reached a dark stair-well. Gripping the metal rail as she climbed, the walls began to close in on her. Her footsteps tapped out a rhythm on the concrete stairs until she reached a windowless landing. One naked bulb struggled to cast a sickly halo on the far off ceiling and barely illuminated the sign on the door which announced her arrival at Camberley Ward.
She hesitated as she placed her finger on the bell, then closed her eyes and pushed. It rang in the distance, echoing back to her from an imagined high-windowed dormitory as she froze to the coconut matting outside the door and resisted the urge to flee.
The sound of distant footsteps coming ever closer – a crash – a shout – another muffled retort all caused Karen’s fears to almost overwhelm her.
The door opened. A blast of warm air and noise gushed towards her, caught her up and sucked her in. A large woman who had been stuffed untidily into a brown checked uniform dress was glaring at her.
‘It’s my first day,’ stammered Karen.
‘Oh? Well you’d better come with me then.’ The woman looked down her nose at Karen’s open face. ‘You should be in uniform.’
‘I’m sorry. I wasn’t told. I haven’t got one yet. Sorry.’
Keys jangling, the woman slammed the door behind them with a flourish and marched off down a long wide corridor.
Hesitating for just the moment that it took to realise that she really didn’t want to be left alone, Karen scurried after the nurse.
Wild looking women were walking about, pacing the floor between tables which were still laden with the remnants of breakfast – metal teapots and marmalade-smeared Pyrex crockery.
A face loomed into Karen’s.
‘Give us a fag, my lover.’ The woman’s toothless smile beamed inches before her eyes. She draped one arm around Karen’s shoulders – her breath reeked of second hand cigarette smoke and kippers.
Karen smiled back uncertainly. ‘Sorry.’ She shook her head.
‘Well fuck off, you fucker!’ the woman spat back at her and pushed her away, storming off once more.
The nurse spun round, ‘Effie! Behave, or you’ll feel the back of my hand.’ She glared at Karen. ‘Don’t give them an inch.’
Karen hurried after her rapidly retreating bulk, darting out of the paths of more women in faded cotton dresses and old ladies’ slippers, each one wrapped in her own private insanity. They passed seemingly endless doors, all tightly closed, until finally reaching the oasis in the middle of this Victorian chamber of horrors – the ward office.
Karen looked around. The room was filled with a couple of desks and several worn chairs, battered grey metal filing cabinets, a notice board covered in typed messages and lists of telephone numbers. Sitting at one of the desks was a man dressed in a white coat.
‘Mike, it’s the new N.A.’ This was more of a complaint than an introduction.
‘Nice to meet you,’ he turned. ‘It’s Karen isn’t it? I’m Mike, the Charge nurse of this lovely place.’ He stood and extended his hand to Karen, taking hers in his strong grip, his smile a grin of crooked teeth. ‘Welcome to the madhouse!’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Karen. ‘I haven’t been given a uniform yet.’
‘Don’t worry about that – we’ll get all that sorted later. I’ll show you around in a bit. Sit down – help yourself to tea.’ He waved vaguely towards a tray laden with teapot and mugs.
‘Thank you.’ Karen poured herself a cup of lukewarm, brackish tea and sat on the edge of a chair. ‘Just got to finish this off,’ he said. ‘I’ll be with you in a tick.’
Karen’s escort sniffed loudly. ‘I have to clear away the breakfasts.’ She glared into the air above Karen’s head, turned on her heels and stalked back down the long gallery.
‘That’s Marion. Don’t take any notice of her.’ Mike grinned at Karen. ‘She’s always like that, miserable cow, but she means well.’
Karen sipped her tea. She noticed a list of names on the wall opposite. Strange names belonging to another time – Effie Simpson, Florrie Price, Millie Thomas, Dolly…
‘Karen?’ Mike was speaking to her.
‘Sorry. I was just looking at the names.’
‘No-one you know, I hope,’ he laughed.
‘I don’t think so.’ She blushed.
‘Right. I’ll show you around then. This is the ward office, which should be kept locked whenever you leave it. All the patient’s notes are kept in that filing cabinet. Cigarettes are in this drawer. Do you smoke?’
‘No. Well, I used to but not any more.’
‘Never mind – there’s a lighter in the drawer as well. Now, let’s have a look down the gallery.’
They left the sanctuary of the office and stepped back into the vast space of the long wide corridor, stopping at the first of a long series of doors which were evenly spaced along one side.
‘These are the side-rooms.’ He unlocked the door and entered the room.
‘Come in then,’ he said. ‘It’s alright – Effie’s out on the gallery.’
The smell hit Karen first. An unwashed-body smell trapped in a room with little ventilation. ‘So much for the Victorian’s view of open spaces and fresh air,’ she thought. The bedclothes were in a tangle and a yellow stain spread across the sheets.
‘Effie always wets the bed.’ He opened the window, pushing it up six inches. ‘That’s as far as it opens,’ he explained. ‘Otherwise they get out.’
Karen peered out of the window. The drop must have been at least thirty feet.
‘Don’t let the drop fool you,’ he added. ‘We had a woman here last year who was anorexic and she got out of the gap, fell and broke her legs.’ He looked at Karen and laughed. ‘Don’t worry, she’s not here now. Come on.’
He swept out of the room.
Back in the corridor Karen heard a rhythmic thumping coming from a room two doors away. Her limited life experience had no compartment for this. The thumping was interwoven with an animal-like grunting.
‘That’s Annie. She’s always left till last. We never go in her room alone,’ he added.
‘Is she trying to get out?’ Karen asked.
‘She just has her little ways.’ They had reached her door. ‘Look.’ He motioned for Karen to peer through the square of glass on the door.
Annie was lying on the bed, face down. The rhythmic thumping noise was her bed grinding into the floor as she rocked and writhed, the grunting sounds getting louder as she tried to reach a climax of ecstasy. Wearing only a cotton nightdress, the back split open to her shoulder blades, the sheets had slid from Annie’s body leaving her vast rippling backside exposed to all who should glance into her room.
Karen blushed and turned away.
‘She’ll be alright in a while,’ Mike smiled as he moved on. ‘Then we’ll get her up and dressed.’
They stood in the wide doorway of a large room with ceilings as high as a cathedral, a row of beds along each wall interspersed with lockers. ‘We sleep ten in here. There’s another ten bedder at the other end of the ward. Ten side-rooms, thirty beds in all. It’s quiet at the moment as we’ve got two empty beds. We get the long-term patients, the ones that don’t get better or are too dangerous to be on an open ward.’
They reached another door.
‘This is the clinic.’ He turned the key and pulled open the door.
‘What’s that smell?’ she coughed.
‘It’s Paraldehyde. We don’t use it much nowadays, now we’ve got Largactil.’ He unlocked a cupboard and took out a glass phial to show her.
‘This is the stuff,’ he said. ‘So potent it melts the plastic syringes.’ He looked at Karen. ‘But we only use it on Gloria. She’s probably the worst of all our lovely ladies. Quite evil.’
She was directed to the sewing room to collect her uniforms. The windowless room was crammed with piles of clothing. A woman at a sewing machine looked up as she entered. Another, dressed in a pink overall, her black hair back-combed into a beehive, tape measure draped around her shoulders, stood as Karen closed the door behind herself.
‘You the new N.A.?’ she asked Karen.
‘Um, yes.’ Karen smiled.
‘Right,’ said the woman, ignoring her smile. ‘This pile’s for you.’ She pointed to a stack of brown uniform dresses, topped with a length of elastic belt material. ‘You’ll have to sew your own belt. There’s some hooks and eyes in here.’ She handed Karen a paper bag.
‘Thank you.’ Karen turned to gather up her uniforms.
‘You’ve got to sign this first. Just here, next to your name.’
‘Sorry.’ Karen signed the book.
Mike took her to the Nursing Office to collect her key.
‘This is a female key,’ she was told. ‘It opens the doors only on the female side of the hospital. If you lose it, you’ll be disciplined. Make sure you always leave locked doors locked behind you. Oh, and don’t ever lend your key to anyone else.’
She was given an identity badge. Looking at it with pride, it displayed her name in bold black letters. Karen Edwards: Nursing Assistant.
Back on the ward, she was thrown into the daily routine.
‘Go and help with the baths, would you Karen?’ Mike asked. ‘They need some more towels. You know where to find them?’
‘I think so.’ The linen cupboard was at the end of the row of side-rooms. She had come face to face with its contents earlier that day. Piles of clothing and bedding. A shelf stacked with voluminous white bloomers.
‘Surely no one still wears such incredible underwear,’ she thought as she grabbed a pile of towels and made her way to the bathroom.
Karen had shaken off her initial shock at seeing the two baths set in the middle of the high-ceilinged room when Mike had shown her around earlier. Now steam rose from the filled baths which were occupied each by a naked woman. A nurse was doing a juggling act between the two, scrubbing the back of one, whilst she shouted instructions to the other to wash.
‘Don’t forget under your arms, Florrie,’ she yelled, scooping a jug full of water from the bath and pouring it over the other woman’s head drowning out her screamed objections.
‘Now, stop making a fuss, Maisie. It’s only water. We have to wash your hair or you’ll get nits!’ The nurse laughed, squirting shampoo onto Maisie’s head before furiously massaging it into her scalp.
A younger nurse stood at the basins supervising two other women as they each washed their face. Beside the basins a row of flannels hung on pegs.
‘I’ve brought some towels,’ Karen said.
‘Thanks,’ smiled the younger nurse, ‘I’m Linda and that’s Dorothy. You must be Karen.’ She took a toothbrush from the shelf and handed it to the first woman by the washbasin. ‘Come on, brush your teeth,’ she said.
‘Can I help with anything?’ Karen asked.
‘Who else is in the bath book?’ Dorothy called across the steam.
‘Millie, Katherine, Josie and Emilie,’ Linda shouted back.
‘Better get them in here then,’ Dorothy said. ‘We’ve got the lunches to do in a minute and we’re all behind.’
‘I’ll go,’ said Linda. ‘You’d better stay here and make sure they clean their teeth properly. Be back in a tick.’ She left Karen wondering how she knew which toothbrush was which.
‘Just give them a good rinse under the hot tap,’ Dorothy laughed as she watched the look of disbelief on Karen’s face. ‘We don’t have time to be particular here,’ she added.
An hour later Karen and Linda queued for lunch in the mausoleum of a canteen. Karen watched in amazement as her new colleague piled her plate with huge amounts of potatoes, overcooked vegetables and roast pork soaked in meaty gravy. Not content with this, she then placed a bowl of treacle sponge and custard on her tray. Karen helped herself to a slice of meat, a small portion of carrots and two roast potatoes.
‘Is that all you’re having?’ Linda asked. ‘The food’s cheap and you can have as much as you like.’
‘I can’t eat that much in the middle of the day.’ Karen shuddered.
‘When it’s the only meal you get in the day, you grab what you can.’ Linda took an extra potato to prove a point.
Karen picked at her food and looked about her. The staff in the canteen seemed as strange and amusing as the patients she had met on the ward. She watched as a group of young men and women came in and sat together at a table near the back of the room. Some of the men had long hair. They sat smoking cigarettes and their laughter reached Karen’s ears. She realised she was staring at them.
‘They’re students,’ Linda explained as her eyes followed Karen’s. ‘Mad lot.’
‘Don’t they have to cut their hair?’
‘As long as it’s off the collar, they get away with it,’ Linda said.
A woman moved amongst the tables with a trolley.
‘Look out,’ Linda warned. ‘Maddy’ll take your plate while you’re still eating if you don’t hold on to it.’
Karen watched as Maddy cleared the tables nearby, and smiled to herself as she saw the woman grab a plate of rice pudding and empty it into the slop bucket on her trolley before its owner could protest.
‘I was going to eat that,’ he grumbled.
‘Sorry, love,’ said Maddy. ‘You can get another one.’
‘Come on, Karen,’ Linda said. ‘We should be getting back now.’ She lit a cigarette and stood up to leave.
When Karen reached her front door some hours later the house was quietly sullen. She let herself in and went to the kitchen to put the kettle on. She peered into the fridge. The chops she’d bought for the special celebration meal gazed passively back at her as she wondered whether to bother or not. She looked at the clock – six fifteen. Peter was late again.
She ran a bath. She could still smell that stuff, what was it? Paraldehyde. It seemed to cling to her clothes and even her hair. She listened for the front door as she peeled off her things, slid into the bath and lay in the warmth of the relaxing water. Her mind drifted back to the women in the bathroom on the ward. She tried to imagine being made to live like that – having a bath with people hustling about, someone pouring water over her head, scrubbing at her naked body.
Karen felt ashamed. She’d been caught up in it all and hadn’t said anything.
‘Those poor women. But perhaps they don’t mind?’ she justified.
She thought about her first day and wondered again whether she’d made the right decision. It had felt the right thing to do at the time – leaving her safe and boring office job even though everyone had said she was either mad or brave to make such a move. If only Peter could understand why it was so important to her – then she would be happy.
She was still awake when he came in at midnight. He fell into the bed and reached across to her. His mouth was wet on her lips.
‘Hello Darling,’ he said, breathing stale beer and smoke into her face.
Disappointment and repulsion washed over her as she braced herself for what was to come.