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A Hopeless Place

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AHP1

 

Boston, 1950

 

The moment the elderly nun stepped off the elevator, leaving Joseph Abernathy and I alone at last, I breathed a sigh of relief. The doors closed behind her and I turned to Joe as the elevator started to rise once more.

“Of all the places for the Dean to send us, Joe, why did it have to be here?”

He let out a huff, “Other than it being a requirement, you mean?” His large hand came to rest reassuringly on my shoulder, “Don’t worry, Lady Jane, these six months will fly by, you’ll see.”

“I hope you’re right.” Danvers State Hospital was not a pretty place to be, but our fourth-year internships were compulsory and we would have to do our rotation in the ward at some point anyway. “This place gives me the creeps.”

A ghostly chill caressed me as we stepped out of the elevator. The ward itself was in the far, shadow-covered wing of the hospital, and half in the basement, at that, but the eerie silence was what chilled me the most. I suppose I half expected there to be manic laughter or screaming of some kind – even those might not have struck me as creepily as the complete silence did. I had lived in dirt before, wiped sweat from my brow to learn that I was covered with the blood of a stranger, and found my way through dark ruins guided only by blood-curdling screams, but the white sterile walls of this bright but dreary prison frightened me more. The squeaking of our shoes on the pastel-green linoleum floor broke the silence as we followed the signs in the direction of the nurses’ station.

“Claire!” A smiling strawberry-blonde nurse appeared in a doorway, and I immediately felt my tension ease up a little.

“A familiar face, at last! How are you, Geillis?” Joe smiled, and she shook his hand, greeting him fondly before turning and drawing me into a familiar hug.

“God, Claire, it feels like it’s been a year since I’ve seen ye last!” 

My best friend’s Scottish lilt brought an instinctual smile to my face. “I suppose you’re going to tell me medical school was a bad idea just for keeping us apart?”

“I would never , Doctor Randall!” Geillis sassed, feigning hurt by clutching her fist to her chest, and making me laugh.

Geillis and I had met years before, as two of the youngest combat nurses at our post during The Great War, and remained friends throughout. After the war ended, we both moved to the United States to work in the military hospitals, but I had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. So, much to Geillie’s overly-dramatic dismay, I left nursing to enter medical school.

“I have missed you.”

“Oh aye, I should hope so.” Geillis grinned, looping her arm through mine as we walked the rest of the way to the nurses’ station. “First thing’s first; you two need these.” She handed Joe and I each a laminated ID card to pin to our pockets. “And now we can begin the Grand Tour .” She gestured widely.

Feeling slightly more at ease, we followed Geillis down the corridor. We passed several communal areas along the way; a dining area, a lounge with a TV set bolted to the wall, and what appeared to be a sunroom doubling as a rec room. Several patients occupied the rec room; most of them were seated at various tables covered with half-completed puzzles and scattered monopoly pieces, but there was another who – much to my shock – lay spread out on the floor, with his hand shoved down the front of his pants. Was he- I hurriedly averted my gaze, feeling the blush begin to creep its way onto my cheeks.

A flash of copper hair drew my attention towards the far end of the room where two patients sat near the window, one on either side of a chess set. The redhead’s curls fell disheveled around her face, catching the bright afternoon sun. Neither she nor the young man opposite her seemed to actually be playing chess, though. They merely stared out the window with identical blank expressions on their faces.

“Come on,” Geillis urged, tugging on my arm. “You need to meet Doc!”

‘Doc’ was a bit of a confusing name, I discovered. The short, older man wore old scrubs, but they were covered by a handmade waistcoat which was spackled with various patches and patterns. His toad-like features were only exaggerated by his voice, which came out in a thick French-accented croak. He took my hand and bowed low, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Madonna.”

“My name is Claire,” I corrected him, trying to sound as polite as possible to mask my confusion, but he just smiled a toothy grin.

“Ah, but you see, you have a halo of blue surrounding you – an aura, if you will – very much like the virgin Madonna; like my own.” His beady eyes stared into mine and I had to blink and look away for fear he would see right into my soul. 

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, too, Doc.”

“Oi!” Geillie chirped, calling our attention from the mock “Doc” to a patient attempting to snort the contents of an ashtray. This abrupt distraction was a truly welcomed segue from my hatred of small talk to the rest of the tour.

Geillis led us down the hallway towards the patients’ bedrooms. She showed us the various interview rooms, the staff break-room, the pill dispensary, and the therapy rooms. By the end of the tour, my heart was in my throat. Working here would be a lot tougher than I had even imagined. Geillis had always seemed to fly a little over the cuckoo’s nest herself, but how the bloody fuck was I not expected to lose my marbles here?

*    *    *

 

“I don’t know, Frank, it’s just so cold and creepy .” The bedroom of our Boston brownstone was the exact opposite. I sighed as I got into bed beside my husband. Frank’s eyes danced across the pages of whichever dusty old history book he had decided to read that night. 

“Mhmm,” he mumbled, closing the book finally and placing it on his nightstand, turning off his lamp.

“I just can’t imagine having to stay there for the full six months.” I flicked off the lamp on my own nightstand and moved myself further down the bed. Frank rolled closer; his arm slung across my middle as he pressed himself against me. “I mean, I know Geillis will be there, but I can’t be around her all the time.”

“Mhmm,” Frank hummed again. His hand had found its way beneath my pyjama shirt and had begun to move in slow circles across my stomach.

I rolled over to face him, “You should have seen this place, Frank. The way those poor people just stared out the window. One guy, I don’t know if he’s a patient or not… Oh, and there was even one who just lay there with his hand down his pants .”

“Oh, really?” I could sense Frank smirk, even in the dark. His hand had begun to wander again, dipping into the waistband of my pyjama pants, “Like this?”

“And, did I tell you? Joe won’t even be there with me. He has to do his rounds in the paediatric side.”

“Joe.” Frank’s hand stopped. Slowly, he withdrew his touch and exhaled a sigh of frustration.

“God, I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like for the children…”

I turned to look at my husband; his face was silhouetted against the faint glow of silver seeping through the curtains. He simply sighed, rolled over, and fell asleep.

*    *    *

Dr. R.F.Q.  Saint-Germain

God, even the way his name filled the plaque on the door was intimidating. Joe and I stood side-by-side outside his room, waiting to be let in. Geillis had met us at the elevator that morning and led us through the winding corridors to the doctors’ offices, explaining along the way that Dr. Saint-Germain was ‘the one in charge around here.’ He’s the mastermind behind the treatments, she had told us, he developed all the medications. We would have to report directly to him, it seemed. 

The door opened quite suddenly, and I found myself face-to-face with the doctor himself. He stared at me with eyes the color of coal, unblinking, for what seemed like forever. Finally, he stepped back so we could enter his office. 

By the time we walked out into the corridor again my head was spinning. There was so much I hadn’t expected to hear; I had known that most of the patients in this ward were undergoing homosexual conversion therapy, but the methods Dr. Saint-Germain described sounded quite extreme. Psychoanalysis and Aversion Therapy - involving either nausea-inducing medications or, much to my horror, electric shocks - were just the tip of the iceberg. And he expected me to assist him! I had hurt patients for their own good before: the realignment of a fractured nose, the swift relocation of a shoulder removed from its joint, the all encompassing dissolution that accompanies an impromptu amputation when mind and body have reached their limit before blacking out; but making people ill in order to “cure” the condition of their sexuality was not a “Do No Harm” exception in my book.

I shivered at the thought; Joe noticed, and gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze. “It’ll be ok, LJ.” I didn’t know whether he said it more for my benefit or his own as he turned and grudgingly made his own way toward the paediatric wing to start his rounds. Deep breaths, Beauchamp , I told myself firmly. I just had to get on with it; there was no other option. 

Geillis wasn’t at the nurses’ station when I got there, so I walked down the hallway in search of her. As I made my way through the ward, however, I felt myself being pulled towards the rec room. The late-morning sun still bathed the room in a faint amber glow; the rays of light stretched from the window and swam around my feet as I stepped through the door. 

A quiet static came from my left where one of the patients was fiddling with the knobs on a radio. The noise set my teeth on edge, so I stepped further into the room, away from the noise. I instinctively averted my gaze as I walked past the man with his hand still in his pants, instead heading towards the game tables. 

A woman with greasy, dark hair sat hunched over a half-complete jigsaw puzzle at one of the tables.

“Hello,” I greeted her tentatively, “my name is Claire Randall. What’s your name?”

She looked up from her puzzle and smiled faintly, her big green eyes searched mine. I wouldn’t have thought she belonged in this ward at all had she not, quite suddenly, begun screaming at the top of her lungs. “Jesus H Roosevelt CHRIST!” I didn’t know whether to cover my ears or my mouth first as two nuns came running in; one held the woman still while the other lifted her sleeve and plunged the needle of a large syringe into her arm. She shivered, stopped screaming, and went slack in the nun’s arms.

“Don’t worry, child,” the nun with the needle turned to me, “it’s just Barbara.” 

I nodded and tried to shake the shocked expression from my face. ' Just Barbara ,' I swallowed thickly, definitely belongs here . The other patients in the room were apparently quite used to Barbara’s antics because not one of them seemed to have moved at all. I looked around at them, scanning the room for someone a little more approachable. 

The woman with the red hair and the petite young man sat at the window again. Both had their faces turned towards the sun, and neither seemed to actually be playing chess. There was something quite serene about this version of The Vision of Saint Benedict . Something about the woman intrigued me, but before I could move towards them Geillie’s voice piped up from behind me.

There ye are, Claire! I’ve been looking for ye everywhere .” 

“Oh, uh, sorry. I went looking for you and ended up here, instead. I thought I’d meet some of the patients before the official meetings.”

Geillis laughed, “Well, yer no’ going to be having many enlightening conversations wi’ this lot. Come on, I’ll fetch ye the files ye'll be needing.”

*    *    *

Deep breaths, I told myself for the second time that day. I clutched the patient file tight as I walked into the interview room, closing the door behind me. It took me a second to realize who I was looking at when I turned around; away from the sun-lit window her hair wasn’t as vividly copper, but the thick, long curls were unmistakable. 

“Miss.. um..” I checked the name on her file as I rounded the table and sat down. “Siobhan?”

She remained still, stiff in her seat and eyes cast downwards. The only movement I could see came from her right hand; two fingers tapped out an anxious rhythm against her thigh. At the base of her wrist, mostly hidden by the sleeve of her blouse, but vibrant against the pallor of her skin, was what appeared to be a floral tattoo.

“Siobhan?” I tried again, flipping briefly through her file, trying not to let my own nerves show. The last thing I needed was to seem vulnerable in front of a patient I knew nothing about.

“That’s no’ my name.” Her voice was quiet, raspy from lack of use. I detected the same Scottish burr that I knew well from my years of friendship with Geillis.

“I’m sorry…” I flipped back to the front page of the file. No, it definitely said Siobhan . “What should I call you?”

She looked up at me then, as though she hadn’t expected anyone to actually hear her. Navy? No, indigo. Her eyes were a remarkable blue darkened by tremendous heartache and the shadows that lived behind them. Her pupils were widely dilated; the silhouette of a setting sun behind her amber lashes. 

“Jamie.”