AJ Kirby is the author of novels Paint this Town Red, Bully, Sharkways, and non-fiction book Fergie’s Finest. His short fiction has been published across the web, in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in two collections: The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape. He was one of twenty Leeds-based authors ‘under 40’ recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for The Guardian’s 2013 ‘Not the Booker’ prize.
Over the past three weeks, TSOTA has been premiering a new short-fiction by AJ Kirby – ‘Cow & Calf’ – set in the wild, gloomy moors of Yorkshire. Here we publish the story in full.
Follow AJ Kirby on Twitter @ajkirbyauthor and via his blog – http://paintthistownred.wordpress.com
Up on moors. Afternoon, but might as well be evening. Gloaming and misty. Siling with rain. Makes a noise like nails clawing at a door on my windcheater. Underfoot, grass is sodden and pathways squelching. Heather beaten down and looks like interior organs.
I’m tramping with my head down watching my boots. They’re red but look like black blood in semi-dark. Bag slapping against my leg. It is a bag for life. Inside it is death.
Path takes me up to Cow and Calf. Also known as Hangingstone Rocks. Two monoliths – or should that be duoliths? – of millstone grit hunkered down at top of hill like they’ve been expecting rain. Cow and Calf overlooking Ben Rhydding and Ilkley. But when I look back can’t see nowt but woolly air and spears of rain slicing through it. So don’t look back.
Never bloody have done.
Hard to catch my breath and when I gulp it is like a fist of millstone grit stuck in my throat, but I press on as incline gets steeper. Sloppiness of path makes back of my legs burn and I slip a couple times but steady does it and happen I reach top.
On top, wind starts up and you can feel ghosts of folk shivering. Folk have carved their names and dates into rock here as though it is a grave. Some go right back to eighteenth century. Writing like calligraphy. Some more recent and writing is barely legible. Can’t see nowt of them now though. Can see whispers of lights on in villages, but none of detail.
Put bag for life down on stone. Wind thwacks at it and fights me when I try to open it, but I’m a determined so-and-so when it comes down to it and I reach my hand in and pull out urn. Wedge it between my boots while I think on whether I should say a few words. But I’m not a hypocrite so I’ll keep schtum. When my old dad passed they had vicar at his send-off. Made all these platitudes about dad. Only they got him wrong, said he was a miner not a bloody carpenter.
Sometimes it’s better to say nowt.
Don’t really know her whose ashes are in urn. But I know her more than most. She was a patient where I work. Came in alone as a ward of state when she was twenty-one and lived all her life in there. I changed her bedpan a few times. Doled out her pills. Locked her in her room when it was her time of month and her room went all foisty and she was liable to fly at a nurse, nails and teeth bared. Most of rest of time she was placid.
One time she looked at me and I thought I saw recognition in her eyes and something passed between us. I couldn’t tell if she blamed me for something or thanked me for something else, but it was on account of that look that I came up here. She used to love these moors. Spent all day every day just looking out on Cow and Calf from window of dayroom.
Only now, when I look back, see bleary bastard shape of hospital down in valley – just a black smudge like really – I wonder if it wasn’t that she hated moors. Perhaps she was casting her spell on them. Certainly there was them amongst rest of staff thought she was a witch.
It’s not really an urn. It’s a red Thermos with a cup handle on side. A screw cap. At crematorium in Otley they said urns were a hundred pounds and hospital was cutting back and I didn’t know her whose ashes are inside enough to shell out that much on her. Looked at her records of course, on hunt for a next of kin. Wasn’t none. And all what was said about her was a two paragraph pen picture which might as well have been written by a monkey taught to type.
Came in before I started work there was all I knew. Came in at ‘that age’, and in ‘that state’ what suggested she’d gotten herself in trouble and had a kiddie or an abortion or postnatal depression and like so many of her sort they had no idea how to deal with her.
Middle of fucking twentieth century and it was like dark ages. Made my blood boil.
Why I’m here, I suppose. Not to sprinkle her ashes as an individual but as a representation, if that don’t sound too fancy Dan.
Bell down at All Saints Church down in Ilkley tolls. Says four o’ clock. Feels like ten. Reminds me I’d better get on with it. Still, strange how noise of it carries, like it’s been held up by wind. I recall a couple summers back and then had a male voice choir at Cow and Calf, belting out On Ilkla Moor Ba ’t’at, getting their lungs into it and that. Could hear them above squeaky wheel of my medicines trolley. Got to dayroom and I flung open windows (with mesh still in place of course – twenty-nine women in there at time and they’d have all lemminged out given quarter of a chance.) Wasn’t like in that Awakenings though. None of them perked up hearing all that. And besides it was always a bit of a horrorshow of a song. All about dying and getting eaten by worms.
Stamp life back in my legs and unscrew death. Step closer to edge of Cow. Could jump across to Calf from here.
Wonder how you’re supposed to do this. Do you just tip it out like slopbucket or do you give it a shake? Do you chuck it, let wind carry it? Just do what feels right. Lift it up over my head like this is some ritual and then tip it Calfways. Then toss.
See it all flouring out.
See as gust of wind catches it.
See as it comes back in my face, salting my eyes and my hair. Made wet by air it gets milkshakey and thickens on my skin.
And then I’m thinking get it off me, get it off me, clawing at my face and scooping lumps of it out of my hair. Blinking as some of it clags in my eye and dropping Thermos.
Sarah she was called and Sarah is all over me. A rash of her. She’s under my fingernails like dirt and in cracks and crevices of my face like salve and crawling into my windcheater and tiptoeing under my top and frosting my belly.
And I’m staggering and flailing and getting too close to edge of Cow. Drop is precipitate like rain and depth of it tugs at my boots. Floor is slippery like black and white checkered corridors down at work, at St. Jude’s. Happen air wants to pull me over. Wants me to hit deck with a slap; wetness of my brains slipping out. And for a beat, two, I want that because sometimes I reckon my life ain’t much better than women I ‘care’ for, but don’t care about.
A life wasted is what it is. A victim is what I am, like Sarah.
I don’t know what pulls me back from edge final. Sheer bloody-mindedness, my old dad would have said. Or guilt: there’d have to be one what found my body, all cracked and broken like an egg. Usually it’s a lone dog-walker. Lone dog-walker seems to find all wormfood bodies. But it might be a child, a Calf.
I couldn’t forgive myself if it was a child.
Never had one myself. Never found right bloke. Never had time or inclination. Sadness of women I work with every day infected me, I suppose. A great bleak emptiness inside me.
Can’t vacuum it out of me by being selfish.
Angry, frantic, frenzied of mind, I stagger away from edge, aware that tears slicking my face and Sarah’s still all over me like blusher. I’m walking madly, blindly, like Jodie Foster at end of Silence of the Lambs when it is black as pitch in killer’s house and he has on his magic glasses and watches her, arms all over place, trying to find a handhold in gloom. Wind buffeting at me and I fall, twice, on filth of path. My elbow jars against a big stone, an embryo compared to Cow, and Calf, but big nonetheless. Bite my lip so hard it draws blood. My windcheater pulls up and wet soaks into my bare, blue legs. They don’t look like my legs in those stupid red boots I have on.
Get back up again. Path dribbling me down towards road. Lights on at pub, a few hundred feet up road, but car park is deserted. My boots slapping through puddles and I am aware that in back of my throat, that fist of millstone which was once there has now melted and it is making a bad sound like an animal been wounded.
Might be singing. On Ilkla Moor Ba ’t’at.
Past visitors centre and toilets and then career to a halt because before me is a big looming shape. A man. He is bearded and looks like Captain off rum bottles. He is wearing a big, brown jacket. He holds out his hands as though he is rounding me up and I am a cow.
‘Whoah there,’ he goes. ‘Are you awlrite.’ He’s cockney. He looks me up and down and sees all mud on me and stains from heather which must look like blood and ashes on my face and death in my eyes and he takes a backwards step and then thinks on this and makes a forward step and he goes, ‘Shouldn’t be out on an afternoon like this, me dear.’
And I’m still shaken and hurt, so I yell in his face: ‘Who are you? Why are you here?’
And he cocks his head and regards me like I’m a baby bird fallen out of a nest.
He whoahs his hands. ‘Calm it, love. I can give you a lift if you needs one. Where you from, where you going? What’s your name?’
So many questions. ‘What’s your blasted name?’ I shout back at him.
He says ‘Todd Jameson’.
And for some reason this calms me a little. I take five or six ragged breaths, and then hang my head. I go to bite my lip and realise I’ve already bitten it half-
off. Mutter, ‘I’m…’ And then I realise I can’t remember my own name.
Worse, I realise I was about to give him a different one from one I’d always presumed was mine – and what I can’t remember.
I was about to say Sarah.
And he bloody knows it. Can tell. He winks at me. He points up at Cow and Calf. ‘You been up there, love? On a day like this, love?’
All I can do is shiver.
He shakes his head. ‘I got transport. Let’s get you out of this cold and into –’ He stops. Lights from road wash through gloom. Man – Todd – says errrr. As though he has a big decision to make. His big feet twitch in gravel.
Lights on road are attached to a big white van what has ST. JUDE’S written on side. It rears out of dark like a chariot ridden by four horsemen. Indicates. Turns off road and into car park, and before I can hide by toilets, it crunches up next to me.
There is another feller in front of van. His breath mists in front of him. He turns in seat and gives me a wicked smile. Then crooks his finger and beckons me to come on.
I look back to Todd, but he is not there.
Van shudders as other feller – I know him, he is Charles. Doctor Charles. Head of hospital – removes key from ignition. Door screams open and he jumps down. Puts a broadsheet newspaper over his head and wades out to me like I’m bobbing in bloody sea. He reaches me and casts his arms about me like he is a lifebuoy. He is so broad and so real I can hear heart thumping in his chest louder than terror of my thoughts.
He says: ‘Come on Sarah, let’s get you back, shall we? A lot of people are very worried about you.’ He moves his arms from around me and holds me at arms length. Smiles. ‘Nurse Reeves isn’t very happy you stole her boots, either.’ Then he frowns. ‘What’s all that… crap on your face? You look like a ghost, Sarah?’
Feel like a ghost and all. Kick him on shin just so he knows I’m real. And then he gets brutal. Vice-hands grip me and lift me off my – Nurse Reeves – feet. Lift me out of my knowledge of who I am. Chuck me in back of van. Climbs up inside after me and yanks me into a seat. Buckles me in and locks buckles.
I know this feeling.
St. Jude’s from outside looks like a health spa. Built in Victorian times it is a very grand, very square building. It was built to stand test of time. Using millstone grit. Local legend has it that place was built from a Bull what also sat atop Ilkley Moor, protecting its Cow and Calf, and though no proper historians proved there was another big monolith up there, there is a real sense building is masculine, bullish. Whenever I’m inside I feel like I’ve got to keep my voice down. That I have to stop chuntering on about my problems.
It’s stark. Spartan decorations. Odd picture on wall, odd seat here and there. Corridors have black and white checkerboard design on floor and mostly everybody inside St. Jude’s gets a fetish about not stepping on tiles.
Can’t do nothing about that now though as I am strapped inside a wheelchair and there are restraints over practically every inch of my body. What’s not restrained by straps though feels restrained by ashes of Sarah. They have hardened on me now. Turned into a mask like what they must have used to slap on to rich women’s faces when Ilkley was one of foremost Spa towns in bloody country.
Nurse Reeves is wheeling me. She has a face like a slapped-arse. Always does. Times in staff room when she gets antsy about… Suddenly I’m not sure whether there were any ‘times in staff room’.
Doctor Charles walking alongside us. His feet are in these slick black shoes look as though they are made of crude oil and sound like women’s high heels. He has a clipboard in his hands. He drums immaculately trimmed nails along side of it as he reads what is on paper on it. Sound bloody goes through me like barbed wire.
He makes hums and he utters hahs. Sometimes he says ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.’
Get in a lift. It is a real old-fashioned one with a mesh door you have to pull shut and then inner doors in it too. It is very creaky as it shunts us up to Gods.
Gods is top floor, where Nurses like me – am I a nurse? – wasn’t really welcome. More paintings on walls up here. Sketches of Cow and Calf and of All Saints church. One of Woodhouse Crag. Carpets on floor here and all so ride in chair is smoother. Nurse Reeves proper has to push to get traction on wheels and I can hear fat fucking cow’s breath getting all choppy and changy.
Get to door what has ‘Doctor Charles Morley: Chief Psychologist’ on a sign nailed into it. He rattles with his gaoler’s keys and I wonder where my matching set went.
We go inside. Like something out of a stately home it is. There is a massive globe on floor. I’ve never left Yorkshire myself. Seems a bit weird in this day and age I know but. There is a big, mahogany desk which has one of those green reading lights you get in libraries. Charles clicks this on and then goes to window and flicks open blinds. Can see Cow and Calf. That mist seems to be seeping away and I want to say Turned out Nice Again, like George Formby, but I don’t want to say nowt because they already think I’m mad and who knows, maybe I bloody well am.
Nurse Reeves deconstructs herself like she’s a fat deckchair. Sits her fat arse on backs of her shoes and loosens straps on my chair. She tuts in my face. I want to spit in hers. Once she’s done she goes over to a sink in corner and wets a handtowel. Troops back over, gasping like it’s end of marathon, and hands it over.
I look at it like it’s a bloody foreign object.
She tells me it’s for washing my face. She tells me I look ‘a state’.
Aye, and you’re a fine one to talk.
Doctor Charles must read my mind on account of he tells Reeves she can go now. He says, in that stupid, show-offy way of his, ‘Leave us’, and then makes his hand do a trill, like he’s royalty dismissing a servant just wiped his arse.
Once door is shut, Charles looks at me a long, long time. And though I burn to look away, I just keep looking right back.
He starts with easy ones. Settling me in. Like there’s a lie detector in room – maybe hidden in that massive globe – and he’s setting it up so we have baseline answers. Oh I know all about his techniques. I’ve sat through countless examinations like this one, twiddling my fingers. I want to tell him I’m not playing that game but for now, I don’t want to show him any hand at all.
He asks me how I got out.
And I think you big, dumb bastard. I finished my shift and I went down crem with Sarah’s… Or was it that? For some reason I can’t remember. Why hell is he doing this to me?
Maybe it is a game.
He asks me whether something has upset me? No: he doesn’t, he says, ‘has something upset the applecart?’
He steeples his fingers. ‘You’re usually one of the good ones, Sarah. Apart from the obvious, of course. I just can’t work out why you’ve flipped like this. I mean, we nearly had to get the police out.’ He pinches his fingers to show me just how close nearly is.
He asks me what all that is on my face.
I shrug. Tell him how it is: ‘It’s Sarah.’
He says: ‘I know you’re Sarah.’
‘No. Stuff on my face. It’s Sarah.’
‘Like a mask? Like pantomime? You feel you’re playing roles? You feel – ’
I want to tell him my name. That I have nursed here for X years. I want to tell him he bloody interviewed me for job. I want to tell him where I bloody well live. How on Friday nights I sometimes go down Menston Arms and soak myself in beer until a man might take me home for night. I want to tell him about cockney I met up at car park. How close nearly was that I went off with him and how I wouldn’t of cared if he fucking ravished me in his ‘transport’. What I tell him is that I know how he has his tea. I should know. I’ve made him plenty in staff room on account of he thinks he is too godly to boil a kettle and whack some hot water on a tea bag.
‘Go on then,’ he goes. ‘I’ll indulge you. How do I take my tea?’
In-bloody-dulge. ‘Three sugars.’ I stick a stupid girly grin on my fizzog. ‘As if you’re not sweet enough.’
He raises an eyebrow. Lowers it to half-mast: ‘Anyone could know that.’ He flaps a paw. ‘What I really want to know is who you are, Sarah?’
Another technique. Keep repeating a patient’s name, reinforcing who they are. ‘I’m Napoleon,’ I go.
He wags a finger. ‘Now Sarah.’ Shifts in his seat. Arranges himself. Then tells me I’m a bloody schizo. That I’m a victim of my own delusions. That I’ve a history of believing I’m someone else.
I’m exasperated now. ‘I don’t believe I’m someone else. I know I am. I’m not Sarah. Sarah’s dead!’
He levels his eyes. ‘So who am I talking to now?’
‘I’m Nurse… Nurse…’ Name is on tip of my tongue. It sounds like a tree, or something in nature. Something barky and… He is looking at me as though I’m mad.
Stoppers my tongue that does.
He licks tip of his finger, flips over a few pages on clipboard. I get feeling he is about to pass sentence. It’ll be a sentence of years, of course, but it will also be measured in milligrams.
‘I saw a man!’ I shout this, like a bloody idiot.
He rubs his chin. As kiddies we used to do that when we thought someone was lying. Itchy chin. Then his face goes passive. Like he’s thinking okay, I’ll humour daft bat. ‘What man?’
‘Up at moor. At car park. He was…’
‘There wasn’t anybody in car park, Sarah,’ he says, softly. Softly like a pillow. Like a pillow he’s about to clamp round my breathing apparatus. ‘Just you. Always you.’ He smiles. ‘Not the first time you went, ahem, AWOL up there. Do you remember the other times, or was that an, ahem, different Sarah?’
‘I told you. I’m not Sarah. Sarah’s a poor old bloody woman who’s been in this place for over forty years. Sarah’s a woman apart. Sarah’s…She had nobody. Came from nothing, was nothing. She died. There was only me to mark her passing. That’s why I went to moors. She loved moors.’
‘Did she now? And I suppose the Cow and Calf was her favourite spot was it?’
Doctor Charles jabs a finger onto clipboard. Begins reading. ‘Sarah Greaves was admitted to Jude’s in 1967. She was twenty-one years of age. She was…’ His eyes look darty. Surreptitious. ‘She was brought up on a farm in Ben Rhydding. She suffered years of the most horrendous abuse. She gave birth to a son – it says here a ‘mentally defective’ son – shortly before she tramped up to your Cow and Calf and attempted to throw herself off it.’ He slaps a paw down on clipboard. ‘Any of that sound familiar?’
A tear pools at corner of my eye.
‘I’m sorry,’ he sighs. ‘I don’t mean to sound so… So clinical about it all, but we go through this over and over and over and – ’ He bangs a fist down now. I jump. ‘Sorry. I just… You were brought up on that farm and you were treated like livestock… Like a bloody cow. For milking and breeding and I don’t know what. You were a victim from the very off. I can see why you need to escape. But Sarah, you’re going to kill yourself one of these days.’
I shake my head. Then a thought: ‘What happened to son? Calf?’
Charles looks away, out to moor. I have my bloody answer.
One last try: ‘I’m sorry, doc, for all this confusion. But there’s been a massive mistake. I’m not Sarah. I tret Sarah. Give her her pills and chucked out her bedpan and wiped her arse for her… I’m not her. I’m a Nurse. Here.’ I realise I’ve been squeezing life out of handtowel. Drips of it on my windcheater and it looks like I’ve bloody pissed myself. Like I am an invalid. Like I am mentally defective. As much as my tied hands will allow I get ahold of zip and jerk it down a bit.
Doc’s up and out of his seat. ‘Here,’ he goes. ‘We can’t have you undressing in here. But I feel your pain.’ Feels my goddamn pain, does he? He nods over at en suite. Tells me go in there and there’s stuff I can clean myself up with. Says there’s still ‘Sarah’ on my fizzog.
Wheels me over he does. Wide door, luckily, so a chair can pass through like it’s a birth canal. Shuts door in case anything untoward happens.
Wheel up to sink. Whack on taps. They get hot very quick and steam comes out but I just let water keep coming and coming, don’t even bother with plug.
Stick my face right in and think about leaving it there, getting my nose caught down plughole.
Drip back out of it and there’s like wet plaster all at bottom of sink, which must be ashes washed off.
Feel a bit faint.
Get sleeve of windcheater and wipe away clouding off mirror above sink. It makes a streaky kind of noise.
Slowly a face emerges from out of fug. Looking back at me with sad cow eyes.
Look away in end. Because it’s Sarah in mirror, no doubt about it.
Unzip windcheater. Thinking mirrors can lie. Thinking underneath windcheater will be my Nurse’s smock-thing.
It’s a gown. Got St. Jude’s written across it and across it in tiny small writing over and over.
It’s what patients wear.
After a while I hear banging on door. Doctor Charles comes in on account of he hasn’t locked it. Offers me ghost of a smile.
‘Same every time,’ he says. ‘You have to stop doing this to yourself, Sarah.’ And as he straps me back in chair again, some humanity from him. He goes: ‘I honestly can’t imagine how awful it must be reliving that moment you discover your son is dead ad infinitum.’ Bit later, as he transfers me to care of Nurse Reeves, he tips me a wink. Says: ‘Next time come back as me, eh? Feels like I never leave this place. And we could do without having to search for you on your moors every other week.’
If I am Sarah I am a victim and I don’t want to be a victim. I throw myself against walls of my room and dash my head against hardness of sink in corner. Make nooses out of loose threads I pull off blankets. Stare up at Cow and Calf when I’m in dayroom and dare it to blink out of existence. Don’t know what bloody happened up there. Can only guess. Must be Sarah’s ashes scattered on wind and landing on me have made me become her.
But I’m still me at same time, if you know what I mean.
I have feelings what are distinct from those Sarah would think. I don’t feel much about Sarah’s son, for example. I can’t remember owt about this farm, wherever it was – Ben Bloody Rhydding? Not likely – or nowt about horrendous abuse.
My mind keeps tripping up on two things. First is a memory seems realer than owt else in this stupid noggin of mine. It’s me weary-drunk in Menston Arms. Drunk pints I did and landlord allowed it on account of I worked at Jude’s and he must of thought people what worked there deserved man’s drinks. I remember leaning surly on bar and men ghosting about me and not asking me nowt or even really looking at me. I remember wanting them to look at me because I wasn’t just a Nurse, I was a woman underneath all scrubs and I needed someone to look after me. Slamming pint-pot back down on bar again and again and gradually pulling down my top a bit and my skirt up a bit so there was more of me to see. Then hot, beery breath on my neck in ginnel round back. My face being ground into wall. All I deserved. Him buttoning up after, seeing my face and sniffing, ‘I thought Nurses liked it rough.’ Or something like it.
Another: man up at car park with his Captain Morgan beard and his ‘transport’. Thinking should have gone off with him when we first saw lights of van from St. Jude’s because whatever he was like inside, he wasn’t bullish as sanatorium, as looney-bin, as mad-house.
Stare up at telly in corner what has daytime soaps on where everyone looks same. Colgate smiles what don’t reach to their frightened eyes. Or adverts selling stuff nobody could want. Sometimes I daydream I am mother in ads. I make-believe I am one getting all flustered about bubbles in washing-up liquid and that. Or else when they have soap about hospitals, I look out for Nurse… Nurse whoever it is I think I am.
Nurse Reeves is very rough with me. Gripped me so hard when getting me out of bath it was like she’d done a Chinese Burn on my arm. My arm is all bony and not much flesh there so she must of gripped me full of anger, her nostrils flaring when she did it like a bull’s.
I don’t know why she hates me so much, but sometimes I get to thinking it must be on account of she knows truth about me and who I am and how drugs are messing me up and nearly getting me to believe them. Spite her, I tell her about when I used to go in Menston Arms. She does nowt but roll her eyes. So I tell her more. Tell her what it feels like to get sorted out round back of pub, because I can’t be making that up can I?
She says it is just as Doctor Charles said it is. I am ‘projecting’. From her mouth word sounds dirty and unusual.
She says my getting ‘sorted out’ is probably a memory of what my bloody dad did to me.
Course I say my dad was a good man. He was a carpenter and not a bloody miner no matter what that vicar said at funeral.
Reeves tells me my dad was a farmer not a carpenter. She asks me whether I really believe all the bullshit I spout.
And I close my eyes and try to bring forth an image of my dad. Big homely warmth of him. Those big lunken jumpers he used to wear, always smelling of sod and animal. Those big hands of his. Roughness of his touch. But more I try and focus, farther away those images go.
‘You don’t need to pretend with me, you know. I can see right through you.’ Nurse Reeves grabs some of loose flesh on my leg. Pinches an inch. With her it would be a bloody mile. Squeezes sneery joke right out of me as though with tweezers. Leans in. Hisses: ‘Right into the rotten core of you.’
Where she has my flesh is going purple. Inside my head it is purple and all. Before I can think about whys and wherefores, I slap her around chops. Noise reverberates around room, like someone’s started in on a round of applause. Reeves’ double, triple chins wobble like jelly they serve in here, on a Wednesday, on a spoon.
I expect her to rear up or fall back. To emit a yelp or a cry or a cuss. But she doesn’t even looked shocked. Touches scorch-mark on her cheek where I hit, and then a tiny, fierce smile kisses her lips.
‘We’ll teach you. One of these days, you’ll learn.’ Jabs a finger into my chest. ‘And don’t you go feeling sorry for yourself. You bring this -’ Another jab. Hard, so it would bruise. ‘- on yourself. So don’t you go thinking you’ve had an unfair deal in life, or that you’ve somehow been wronged. This happens because you want it to.’ She leaned close. Seethed: ‘You want this. It’s the only thing keeping you going in here.’
Hang my old head. See lank, greasebucket hair hanging down in front of my eyes.
A laugh: ‘That’s why you don’t bloody jump off your Cow and Calf whenever you slink up there. You’re just after the attention of it, the drama of it.’
I go to slap her again and she grabs my arm. Forces it back down in my lap. Inside I am screaming with rage. Inside I am seething with unfairness of this. Outside I keep my head hung low so my nose nearly touches my old wounded knee.
Hear Reeves plastic shoes slap-slapping off floor. Creak and crack of door. A slam.
Then wild animal in me comes out. I am like an unbroken horse or a crazed bull. I rampage through room, tearing open bedside table and pulling out few things below to me. Kicking and fighting blankets. Ramming head into wall.
Until there is no energy left in me, until I can only shiver, leftover cold from my afternoon on moors stuck in very bones of me.
I go to mirror. Stare at wild creature in it. Wild and old. My hair piebald with grey. My face still Sarah’s, still a victim’s, not mine. I think about ramming my head into mirror. Taking shards of it and driving them into my – Sarah’s – wrists. I think about peeling away top layer of face. But instead I face victim down. I say to it: ‘I am me, I am me, I am me.’ And it echoes back, a playground chant: ‘You’re a victim, you’re a victim, you’re a victim.’
While later, someone opens hatch in door. Even without sound of her bullish breath against door, I’d know it was Nurse Reeves. I feel her eyes on me for a long time.
Finally she comes in. She has red Thermos flask with her. Sticks it on my bedside table. I can see a tiny whisper of steam floating out of top. She makes sure I clock it. Makes sure I know it contains boiling water. Then she sits on edge of bed. She strokes blanket while she talks. Says: ‘Nobody hits me. I won’t allow it.’ Reaches for Thermos. Starts to unscrew cap. ‘I’m sick of this behaviour,’ she continues. ‘Had it up to the bloody back teeth, Sarah.’
Cap opens with a sigh and I know she is going to throw it in my face. And most of me doesn’t really mind this. Most of me wants Sarah scorched off me.
She lifts flask to her lips and takes swig. Makes an appreciative gasp. I can smell coffee.
She sneers. ‘What? Did you think I was going to burn you, Sarah?’ She puts flask back down and grabs my hand. Her long nails dig in my skin. ‘You’ve got a vivid imagination, haven’t you? Has anyone ever told you that?’
Then she punches me in face.
And in that moment where I’m misting between reality and dreams, between Sarah and Nurse Someone Else, I am transported. With a jolt, I land in body of someone else who is both me and not me. I can smell a reek of ammonia, which is coming off me. I can hear kiddies calling, ripping into me with abuse. I can feel small fingers nipping at me.
I am girl in school everyone avoids. Girl who sits in a corner, quiet, hoping not to be noticed. I am girl in school who daydreams herself somewhere else. I am girl who wants school day to go on forever.
I am girl scared of going home.
I am bird fallen out of nest. Broken inside and out. I stink of piss and of victimhood. Other kiddies smell it on me and hate me for it. Adults hate me too because my very presence makes them ask questions they don’t want to hear answer to.
I am calf shunned by its mother. I will become cow who will do exactly same to my calf.
My story is my history. Goes back generation after generation, to when there was a Bull on top of moor as well as Cow and Calf.
‘I wouldn’t dream of hurting you in that way, Sarah. You must understand that. I wouldn’t want to make you happy now, would I?’
I bite my lip. Taste blood. Bit my lip on moors too. Christ knows what my… her face is like now.
Nurse Reeves shakes her head. Opens her cardie. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I did bring you something, but it wasn’t something as temporary as a bit of hot water.’ She can’t help but grin. ‘I brought you this.’ She presents a photocopy of some pages from my… Sarah’s file. And I know these pages. In the very bones of me I know them. One of pages is a print of a death certificate for my son. He lived one day. Another is story of how I was ‘rounded up’ on top of Cow and Calf. Last one is Doctor Charles’ notes from my most recent evaluation.
Nurse Reeves walks out, bouncing off walls almost on account of she is laughing so much. She forgets her Thermos.
Next two days I save pills under my tongue and spit them out after Nurse Reeves has left dayroom. Can feel life seeping back into my limbs and a bit into my mind too. I’m still all kinds of confused but I have a plan now. I know I must get rid of pages Nurse Reeves gave to me.
There are only two men in entire of St. Jude’s. Patients, I mean. One is Brian Carter. He has whole of second floor to himself. He is not just insane but criminally insane. Other is a man named Alf Byers. By rights he could of walked out of here any day he wanted. Apparently he was signed off – given all clear – a decade ago. He could of taken a council flat in town, or maybe in Otley, but he prefers to keep a room at St. Jude’s. Staff let him help out in gardens and he can often be seen smoking his pipe on one of benches outside. It’s there I find him.
He’s says ‘nah then,’ by way of greeting.
I ask him whether I can have a go of his lighter.
He makes to hand it over. Then stops. ‘What’ll you be wanting it for? Not meaning to burn the place to ground, are you duck?’ Then he grins. ‘Only kidding. Do what you want with it.’
I take lighter, and photocopies, and me back to my room. But, worried I really will burn place down, I rip and scrunch all pages up into bottom of Thermos and then light them. Watch until all of that knowledge burns away into char and black. Then let it burn some more so the black goes grey then white. Then I push my hand inside and use it like a pestle. Grind remainder reminder into so much ashes.
Make my escape day after. Sneak out by borrowing a windcheater offof the coathooks by Alf’s gardening stores. A pair of green boots for my feet. High-tail it for Cow and Calf, for a proper ceremony.
On way up, I begin to forget who I am.
Nearly fall off edge of Cow. Stumble down to car park. Meet Todd. See lights of St. Jude’s van approaching. Doctor Charles takes me home, but somewhere along line it seems my mind fell off Cow.
Nurse Reeves punches me in face. Presents me with evidence of my son’s death. I must burn it.
Find myself, or someone else, someone like me, on Cow. Go straight to St. Jude’s. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred pounds.
Ask to borrow Alf’s lighter. Ready to go back to my room to burn, burn, burn. Alf stops me with a look. He pats bench next to him and I sit.
‘Know what definition of madness is, Sarah duck?’ he says.
‘I told you. I’m not Sarah. I -’ I realise I’m shouting. Lower my voice. ‘I work in kitchens here. Always have done. My name’s – ’
He holds up a liver-spotted hand. ‘Okay, okay. But are you going to answer my question?’
‘What was it?’
‘Definition of madness.’
‘It’s doing same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome every time.’ He puts hand on my knee. Not in sexual way. Like a dad would. A good dad. ‘You’re not mad are you, love?’
I nod and shake my head all at same time.
He winks. ‘Ah don’t worry about it. We’re all mad one way or another.’ His laugh starts as a deep rumble inside him and then lavas up like a volcano. Soon descends into a coughing fit. He holds pipe away from him as I slap him on back.
Finally, he’s right. But all that coughing has made his eyes gleam. He might be blubbering. He takes a deep breath and says: ‘Do something different this time, eh? Change something. No matter how small. Break the cycle.’
I give him a look like I don’t know what he means, but some part of me does. Still, I take my leave. Retire to my room. Burn evidence all over again.
Slip-sliding down path, On Ilkla Moor Ba ’t’at juddering out of me with every stone, rock or pebble I hit. And then barrelling over loose gravel of car park, my feet going ten to dozen. My heart lurching in my throat like it is bungee-roping up and down like climbers sometimes have when they attempt to mount Cow. Or Calf.
Man steps out. Captain Morgan. Captain Haddock. Captain Pugwash. Bluto. Don’t know why I picture him like this. I know he is a figment of my fabled imagination. Perhaps this is what my dad looked like.
Know what they say about runs in the family.
He goes, ‘Whoah there.’ And then: ‘Are you awlrite.’ This cockney. Giving it nodding-dog head as he takes in state of me.
And I know what he’s going to say next afore he even says it. ‘Shouldn’t be out on an afternoon like this, me dear.’ We both say it at same time. It’s only me what says the ‘dear’ part though on account of he’s stopped. Looks shocked he does. Like I’ve just goosed him, or walked over his grave.
Maybe I have.
‘Take me to your transport,’ I say, like a victim of an alien abduction, like an alien here, asking to be taken to his leader. Because that’s what I feel like. As though everything’s suddenly gone off reservation. Alf’s words about cycles are in my head.
He gulps. ‘Awlrite then.’
We’re off into gloaming before lights of St. Jude’s van can descend on us. Walking fast so it’s hard to catch my breath, but I still manage to ask him a few things, have them confirmed.
‘You’re Todd, aren’t you?’
‘You’re my son, aren’t you? You look like your father.’
‘Sorry. Hurts me too… You’re dead though, aren’t you?’
‘So what are we doing? Why are you… haunting me?’
‘Don’t say much do you?’
A grin. ‘I’m a ghost.’
‘A ghost with a cockney accent. Why do you speak like that?’
‘I can have any accent you want me to have. You’ve probably settled on cockney on account of you’ve heard it on one of ‘your soaps’. Settled on it on account of it is not much like Yorkshire accent. Not much like our father’s accent…’
I nod, acknowledging this. ‘So where’s transport? What’s transport?’
He stops. Swings round. Clicks fingers in my face.
And suddenly we’re back in Gods at St. Jude’s. Doctor Charles is telling me all about who he thinks I am in that sombre, sober voice of his, and I can’t help but grin because my lad Todd is perched on edge of desk, pulling all kinds of silly faces. Must be about 40 years old, Todd, but he’s behaving like a toddler. He starts thumbing his nose right in Charles’s face and I burst out laughing.
Charles looks at me, confused. ‘What’s wrong with you? Have you had a funny turn? I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh before, Sarah?’
Todd pulls a Doctor Charles face and I have to hide my head in my hands as it feels as though my insides might rupture.
Todd isn’t letting me off that easy though. Goes over and spins massive globe. Has it whirring and whirring round so you can’t even make out continents any more. So you can’t even see difference between sea and land… but Charles – much as I’m desperate for him to see it – is looking over in other direction. At moors.
Charles reads from my rap-sheet again: ‘Sarah Greaves was admitted to Jude’s in 1957. She was twenty-one years of age. She was brought up on a farm in Ben Rhydding. She suffered years of the most horrendous abuse. She gave birth to a son – it says here a ‘mentally defective’ son – shortly before she tramped up to your Cow and Calf and attempted to throw herself off it.’
I shake my head. ‘He isn’t mentally defective. He’s just a little boisterous, that’s all.’
A spark of something bright in Charles’s eye. He leans forward, excited. ‘This is something new,’ he says, flicking through pages of me on his clipboard. ‘You’ve never previously mentioned your boy. Previously you’ve denied all knowledge both of him, and of yourself. This -’ He blows out his cheeks. ‘This could be a major breakthrough.’
Or breakout, I think. Because even though I know he ain’t real – not like Doctor Charles or Nurse Reeves, or Alf in garden – with Todd here it feels like I got more space in my head, you know?
‘This might be the first sign you’re ready to move on, X-years after the event.’ He drums fingers on desk. ‘You talked of your boy in the present tense. You said ‘just a little boisterous’. Tell me what you see, Sarah. Tell me what you feel.’
Todd is over by bookshelves, pulling out hefty tome after hefty tome, pretending like he is reading through them, flick-booking the pages. I can hear ridges on his thumbs crimping against paper of them.
Todd returns a book to shelf. Turns and places a finger on his lips.
‘You’ve never even mentioned your son before. This is something we should explore.’
Todd shakes his head.
I clam up. Don’t have to tell him nothing.
Doctor Charles tries a few new tacks, but I’m schtum now. Eventually, Nurse Reeves comes up and collects me, wheels me back to lift. Soon as she yanks doors shut, she’s in my face. ‘Something’s happened. You’re different.’ She sniffs about me like a fat dog. ‘Have you been shirking on the pills, hiding them under your tongue again? You know I have ways of making you swallow, Sarah.’
And I just let a placid smile crack my face. Todd is behind her, see, making these daft gestures behind her back. Puffing out his cheeks and making a wobbly fat-walk. Giving himself double, triple-chins.
‘Stop grinning,’ Reeves barks. Spittle collects at corners of her gob.
Todd observes: ‘What an ugly woman.’ And I can’t help but agree.
She mutters and moans her way back to my room and then stands in doorway, leaning against jamb for a bit, weighing me up. Todd goes up to her and blows in her face. She almost jumps. Looks creeped like someone goosed her. Looks over her shoulder. Adjusts hair under her bonnet. Frowns. Then: ‘Is there a window open in here or something?’ Then shakes her head. ‘Ah, what am I talking about. Course there’s no window in here. They wouldn’t let someone like you have a window.’
I tap at side of my head. As I do it I get a flash of memory what quivers through me like a long-delayed aftershock. Girls in playground, or in town, tapping sides of their own heads and then screwing their fingers. You’re crazy. You’re a looney-tune. You got a screw loose. Won’t let that bother me now. Don’t feel like a victim any more. ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ I say. Tap my head again. ‘I got a window up here.’
Nurse Reeves takes a heavy step into my room. Pauses. ‘What did you say?’
‘Said you’re wrong. Barking up wrong tree.’
Reeves lowers her voice into a bestial growl. ‘No. What else did you say?’
Todd mimes that she should get her lugholes checked. Jabs a thick finger into his own ghost-ear and waggles it about.
‘You heard me.’
Reeves lifts her hand. Don’t know if it is an unconscious gesture, but her fingers twitch into a pinch. She is already imagining herself pinching my leg or my arm. ‘Maybe I did. But I’d like you to say it again.’
Can feel what I want to say in my head like it is engraved, like it is carved in millstone grit like up at Cow and Calf. Stop bullying me. Stop making me a victim. Or rather I won’t let you bully me no more. I won’t let you make me a victim.
Nurse Reeves drops her hand to her side. Regards me a long time. And it is as though she sees me for first time and all. Sees me. Not just this piss-stinking, gibbering, pathetic old wreck of a woman what can get stomped on and pinched on and all that without it mattering a jot.
‘I want to go in dayroom now,’ I say.
Nurse Reeves’ brow wrinkles like windblown snow. Her lips twitch, try to sneer. Can’t.
And I want to tell her I’m not afraid any more. For first time since nobody can remember, not even me. I been scared since I used to hear that heavy tread on third step from top on staircase in old farmhouse, scared since when I was a bad girl and made to sleep in cow pens. Scared since he made me a victim. Todd nods over at me, as though he can read my mind. Heck, he probably can on account of he is part of my mind too. His nod says: you’re not a victim no more.
Nurse Reeves comes up behind and stamps a foot down on wheelchair’s brake-lock. Then spins me round. Quite gentle really. Then wheels me back out of door and up the black and white check corridor.
Find Alf out in garden. Old juffer gives me a wary look but says ‘Nah then’, nonetheless. Pats his bench and I sit, making room for Todd by me.
We sit in quiet for a bit and then Alf goes, ‘So you’ll be wanting lighter again, duck?’
He gives me a funny look. ‘But you look about ready to go on another of your escapades.’
‘I am. Don’t need no lighter though.’
He cracks a smile. ‘Told you, didn’t I? Break the cycle. Do summat different.’
‘I did.’ I tap at side of my head.
He looks out over garden: nicely manicured hedges and flowerbeds and verdant lawns. Sucks on his pipe. ‘Know what I see when I look out on this place?’ he says, all softly.
Shake my head.
‘Different garden. I was brought up in North Riding. Had a big country house there. Used to go up there on my Saturdays. Help out with gardener. I think-on this is that place. And it is that place.’ Winks. ‘Mad, ain’t it? But good mad, right?’
I tap his knee like he did to me another time. ‘Good mad.’
Then me and Todd are up off the bench. Todd leading way out of garden and down onto road. He tells me he can click his fingers and we’ll make it up to Cow and Calf in no time, but I tell him I prefer to walk and breathe and take my own sweet time. Almost regret this when we start steep incline up to moors, when breath rasps in my throat and my legs burn, when I can feel my old bones screaming in complaint. But at least they are alive now, awake.
We stop a couple times and I look at Todd about to tell him I love him, and he looks at me as though to say nah mother, we don’t want all that mush.
Gets steeper past car park and visitor’s centre. Wind whips about us and ground gets squelchy and uneven. Heather, what I once thought looked like coiled and bloodied intestines, looks different. Softer. My dad used to put heather in cow stalls when I had to sleep out there. Wasn’t so bad to sleep on.
Todd holds me up when I slip and he helps me stay out of gusty wind, and I think good mad.
We go up top where there are all engravings in millstone grit. Mark Coverley 1905. Dean Robson 2003. Paul Preece 1923. Todd has me by hand and he leads me over between a couple tall parts of rock. It is like a windbreak. Everything goes quiet and still. Even my hair stops flipping and whipping about my face. My son helps me sit down. Hear my knees cracking like gunshots. Todd rolls his eyes at me. And then he reaches out, my hand in his, and we trace our fingers over rock.
There is his name, Todd Jameson 1967.
And I give him quizzical look. Tell him I know he’s a figment of my imagination – and what was it Nurse Reeves said about my having a vivid imagination.
I say it is impossible. I know he died when he was a bairn. I know it in very, empty core of me.
And besides, I’m called Greaves, not Jameson.
This is another Todd.
And my son shakes his head. Mouths word ‘nope’.
But I still don’t get his meaning. Thousands of thoughts swirl around in my head. They are like a flock of birds. Occasionally one will swoop low and peck, and I’ll think, more coherently, maybe Todd lived. Maybe he was adopted. Maybe he took on another family’s name. Maybe he went to live down south. Hence his accent. And then I have to keep believing in him, because believing in him has released me. And all time his eyes, his piercing eyes looking back at me.
I leave him sat between rocks in windbreak. He is smoking. Must of borrowed some baccy offof old Alf, though how that would work, God only knows. I know smoke is not real, but at same time, I am sure I can see it when I look back from edge of Cow. Just a wisp of it: a whisper of it. But it is there. I am sure it is there, white-grey of it stark against black of sky.
From edge of Cow, I can see all of Ilkley and Ben Rhydding. Towns what failed me. Towns what drove me to distraction. Towns what victimised me, made me an outsider. There is All Saints church and Ilkley Lido and river. There is school and Curly Hill and, over to side, St. Jude’s. Should hate it. Should be sick of sight of it. But I’m not. Tired of feeling so cramped-up with bitterness inside.
Look over edge into darkness – welcoming pitch of it – and think about leaping because it is happiest moment of my life and saddest moment of my life all rolled into one. But wrinkle my nose and I can smell the sourness of Todd’s baccy and then I think wouldn’t it be better to just go back to windbreak and run my fingers over Todd’s name all over.
Dare to dream.
Because horrible as everything has been for me throughout my life, happen I can see sun breaking through clouds, at last. I don’t think I will be proper happy in future. I don’t think they will release me from Jude’s – they can’t, not with my invisible son. But I know there is possibility of happiness, of good, somewhere out there, and this makes mask of victimhood disappear over edge of Cow like so much ash.
Filed under: Written & Spoken Word