I let out an audible sigh, dumping the last of the patient files onto the counter of the dispensary with a thud that made Geillis jump. The pills, which she had been carefully counting and doling out, all tumbled into one of the little paper cups.
“Och, ye’ve made me lose count, Claire.” She scowled.
“I’m sorry. Shall I help?” I walked around to her side of the counter.
Geillis just shook her head. “No, ye look exhausted. Doc can help me.”
“You require assistance, mademoiselle ?” Hearing his name, the beady-eyed little man had poked his head around the doorframe. I still couldn’t tell whether he was a patient or a doctor, but either way he seemed to be working in the dispensary. Geillis handed him the overflowing cup of pills and stepped away for him to take over.
“How have the interviews been going, then?” Geillis pulled up a stool and motioned for me to sit down. I obliged, thanking her with a tired smile. The ward was large, and I’d had to walk back and forth collecting patients for their interviews all morning.
“Rather well, so far, but I’ve not seen all of them yet, so I’ll have to continue tomorrow.” I ran my hands through my hair; I had neatly pinned it back that morning, but my unruly curls had escaped at some point over the course of the morning.
Somewhere in the ward a familiar screech rang out, startling me.
“Sounds like it’s Barb O’ Clock .” Geillis trilled, laughing to herself as she turned back towards Doc, “How far are ye with those pills?”
A pair of nuns scampered past the dispensary in the direction of the high-pitched screaming, and moments later the ward fell into silence once more. The scream seemed to have alerted the rest of the patients, because they all slowly began to appear from various rooms and adjoining corridors.
“Here, pour this, would ye?” Geillis handed me a stack of cups and a pitcher of water. “Who do ye still need tae meet wi’, then?”
I complied, pouring the water and placing each cup on a tray in front of the dispensary hatch. “Well, that young man, for one. The one who sits at the chessboard every day.”
“Here ye go, Mr. Adams,” Geillis passed one of the little paper cups through the hatch, to a scrawny-looking old man who glared back at her before looking thoughtfully at me, “Oh aye, that’ll be young Captain Grey - John, his name is. A braw lad, although- Thank you, Jerry-” she took the cup back from the man then added, with a whisper, “between you and me, he seems a bit preoccupied with the youngins, if ye ken my meaning.”
“Really? He seems barely older than a child himself, quite honestly. Did you call him ‘ Captain ’ Grey?” I glanced out into the hall, scanned the queueing patients, and finally spotted the young man in question. He stood near the back of the line, his hands behind his back in true military poise; I was suddenly struck by memories of all the young men I had treated in the field, none of whom were anywhere near being captains.
“He’s near twenty now, and aye, he made Captain during the war.” She continued to hand small paper cups of pills and water through the hatch. “I heard he was quite the bonnie wee soldier.” A chuckle escaped me as I realized that at 10 years his senior, young Captain Grey had out ranked me. I could only assume his family name would have afforded him such an early commission. I nearly choked, forced to swallow that short-lived laugh, remembering the many field deaths that also led young men and women to premature promotion in order to replace their wounded leadership. How the hell did he end up here ?
My eyes drifted from the young captain as the queue moved forward and I caught a glimpse of copper hair. Siobhan was taller than John, but then again, John was not very tall. “They seem to be quite close.”
Geillis followed the direction of my gaze as she doled out the midday medications, “Weel, they’ve been paired up for therapy for quite a while. Oi! Give that back!” She nearly dove across the counter as one of the patients swiped a cup of pills without her seeing.
“I interviewed her this morning. Do you know much about her?” I picked up Geillis’ starched white nurse’s cap, which had fallen off as she leapt, and handed it back to her. Through the hatch I could see Siobhan - Jamie - and John drawing nearer to the front of the line.
She straightened her cap and eyed me suspiciously. “Why are ye asking me ? Ye’ve seen her file yerself, have ye no?”
I watched as the compulsive masturbator stepped forward, his only unoccupied hand fumbling to hold both water and pill cups. “Only a brief medical history but not much of her social and familial history. Has she been here long?”
“Off ye pop now, Arthur!” Geillis rolled her eyes and shooed the man out of the way, turning to me and picking up the next pill cup. “Aye, a year or so.”
A year? I could barely fathom being in the ward for longer than the six required months of my internship, so the idea of being the one locked up and having to stay for that long broke my heart. “That’s a long time.” My mouth had gone dry.
“Och, most of them ha’ been here longer than that.”
“Was she always this quiet?”
“Siobhan Fraser? Och, no. Ye should ha’ seen her. Put up a real fight, that one did. Not so much as auld Mr. Adams; now he was a challenging one. Dinna fash, Claire, nobody expects ye to actually get through to any o’ them. That’s what the pills and treatments are for.”
“Right.” The quietly stoic, seemingly shy woman I had met with that morning had hardly seemed like a fighter, to me. She had seemed withdrawn, folded in on herself like a wilting flower. Perhaps that was why she and John sat at the window in the sun each day - the hope of finding something to rejuvenate them.
* * *
Group therapy later that day was chaotic to say the least. First, the seating arrangements were a fight - “as usual," I had been told - then everyone wanted to speak all at once, and then nobody wanted to talk at all. I looked around at them, trying hard not to think about what came after group therapy. I didn’t want to imagine any of them lying on a table with electrodes pressed to their temples. I felt my breath rattle through me with a shiver as my eyes fell on the young captain and his copper-haired companion on the opposite end of the circle. They always seemed so serene together, so at peace. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to hurt them - even in the name of science.
* * *
Leading the first of the patients into the procedure room was a strange feeling. A coldness ran through me, starting deep in my chest and radiating through my limbs, settling like ice in my fingers and toes. Barbara was already mostly sedated, having been premedicated, but as we neared the bed she stopped complying with the nurses who ‘assisted’ her. And when the first electroconvulsive shocks were administered, I couldn’t help but look away. When it was over and they were leading her away, I could still see her muscles spasming slightly. Her green eyes stared right through me this time.
Jamie was next. I avoided her eyes, feeling the coldness in my veins still tingling at my core. She only looked forward, chin up and back straight as she entered the brightly lit procedural room; she seemed to have prepared herself for what was to come. Her red curls fell softly on the bed, a lackluster halo around her head as it was cradled between paddles. She kept her eyelids tightly shut but they sprung open involuntarily with the first shock; a starburst of color accented by a pinpoint pupil. The leather straps holding her to the table strained with her convulsing muscles, and I felt a sob wrack through me, up and out into the world for all to hear. Dr. Rawlings glanced up at me curiously, the look in his eyes not of pity but of annoyance; I took his offer to leave before he had even finished giving it.
Back out in the corridor I crumbled. Jesus bloody Christ, Beauchamp, I chastised myself, pull yourself together. I stayed in the corridor until I knew her treatment was complete, finally concluding that my overreaction was due purely to watching this woman, who I had seen only as passive and calm, be blindly electrocuted. But when I stepped back into the room, saw the nurses unstrapping her long limp form and hoisting her bodily from the procedure table to a gurney, I knew I had to do something.
* * *
Try as I might, the damn gas refused to light again. “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ!” I slammed the pan back on the stove with a clang . I knew there was another lighter somewhere in this cramped kitchen.
“He didn’t listen of course. Just asked me if I’d ‘had the opportunity to examine’ some or other prospectus for the spring seminar.” Frank was rambling on about a grant proposal at the university where he worked. He reached up into the cabinet above my head and pulled out the spare lighter I had been searching for. “You know, you don’t have to cook.”
“But I’ve already prepared everything-” Frank had already gone off on another tangent about his day. I glanced at the ingredients laid out on the counter to my right and sighed. I wondered what they ate in the ward; all the hospital food I’d ever eaten had tasted like rubberized cardboard. I hoped Siobhan and John - and the others, of course - were being well fed.
Siobhan. My mind kept coming back to her, somehow. She was only 5 years my junior but had lived a completely different life. My mind filled with images of her convulsing body, her jaw clenched tight as electricity pulsed through her; it made my stomach turn. Frank was right, I didn’t have to cook. He would gladly settle for take-out.
Later that night, even with our empty Chinese takeaway cartons left out on the kitchen table, I settled into bed. Frank, who had evidently been waiting for me, closed his book and set it aside almost at once. I was exhausted; my mind swam with the emotions of the day, and I sought the comfort of sinking into sleep. That night, he wanted more.
Frank bore into me with the grunts of someone bringing the word of God to a foreign land; tentatively, ritually, unchanging in his long-taught ways. His hands were on me, hot against my skin, but somehow they felt softer than normal. His panting breath in my neck sent shivers through me, flashes of red and gold erupting behind my eyelids like dancing flames in sunlight. I lay unmoving, breathless, my hands gripping the sheets as my mind pieced together a distant recollection; a kaleidoscope of colors and textures not-yet-familiar. Silky auburn, shimmering copper, and a dark, glassy blue… navy? No, indigo.
The realization hit me like a ton of bricks.
* * *
The next morning, as I walked the halls in search of various patients for interviews, I had almost forgotten about my late-night thoughts of Siobhan Fraser. That is, until I stepped into the rec room to find John. I should have known she would be there, sitting at the window across from John Grey, as she always was.
I stood in the doorway for a moment and looked at her as though seeing her for the first time. I had noticed her brilliant red curls from our first encounter, of course, but I had not fully taken in her beauty in its entirety before. Her lips were pale pink, soft and plump, and her nose was perfectly formed as if by a sculptor. I traced the soft, subtle strength of her jawline with my eyes; the way it curved up to her ears, which stuck out just a little . I was struck by the inexplicable urge to reach out and touch her at the crease where her earlobe folded into her neck, to see whether the skin there was as smooth as it looked. I shook myself, shocked that I had even thought such a thing. Siobhan was beautiful, that much was certain; I was merely admiring natural beauty. Right? I took a breath and walked towards the pair. Neither looked away from the window as I stopped in front of the chess table.
“Good morning, Miss Fraser, Captain Grey.” I made an effort to sound chipper, but neither patient seemed to notice my presence at all. “How are we doing this morning?” Still, they didn’t even look in my direction.
I glanced down at the chessboard, then at John, and at Siobhan. I reached out and took hold of one of the pieces, edging it a few squares forwards. Without warning, Siobhan’s hand floated from her lap and grasped my own, not firmly but with purpose, as I still held the chess piece. She moved my hand - and the piece - back to where it had been, paused, and then moved it forwards and sideways in an upside-down L shape. Her hand lingered on mine for what felt like minutes. The warmth of her touch spread through me, and I hoped she couldn’t feel my quickening pulse. I stared at her hand, unable to look away, for I could feel her eyes on me.
Her fingers were long and slender; I could feel slight calluses on her finger tips, and there was a faint white scar running along the length of her ring finger. I was just wondering what had caused it, when the young Captain cleared his throat.
“Be mindful, my dear. They’re watching us.” I wasn’t sure which of us he was talking to, but Siobhan drew her hand back instantly, clasping it with the other in her lap. I took my own hand back, and looked up at John. He smiled and stood from his seat. “Time for our interview, I presume?”
* * *
“Yes! Yes, you may, of course. Please be seated, Captain Grey.” I motioned toward the chair opposite my own, answering the question he hadn’t asked when he entered the office and stood at parade rest.
“Right, so I think you’ve noticed me here recently. I’m Claire Randall, a medical intern. You can tell me as much or as little as you like. I’m here to learn about your experience and the influence of Dr. Saint-Germain’s treatments on patient rehabilitation.” He was quite charming, incredibly polite, and surprisingly forthcoming about his past.
I learned from sweet John that his arm had been broken by enemy forces during the war and that, because he was positioned so far from the nearest field hospital, it went days before being properly set. An infection had landed him in hospital but it was the news of his boyfriend Hector’s death in battle that had triggered a psychotic break, earning him an all expense paid trip to Danvers State Hospital. Although I didn’t know him well, he seemed more himself than any of the other patients I had interviewed. A quick shuffle through his file and into his medical records revealed that John’s dosing had been titrated down over time. He actually received a much smaller amount than the other patients and didn’t require ECT. In fact, his prescription mostly consisted of antipsychotics and therapy by that point.
As if reading the thoughts written across my furrowed brow, he cast his eyes down and sheepishly said, “My condition is not one of complete abomination, madam.” I silently cursed my own eyes as they shot up from the notepad. Being that he was attracted to both women and men, John had been diagnosed with a “mild” case of homosexuality and per Dr. Saint-Germain’s most recent progress note, ‘has rehabilitated quite nicely and is on target for scheduled release.’ I was disgusted in myself for even aiding such a place.
I looked down at my list of questions, cringing at the cold formality of it all. I didn’t want to ask those questions. Finally I settled on one. “Do you think they work, John? The medications, that is."
He looked back at me, his lips pulled tightly to one side as he nibbled at the corner of his lip, gauging, computing, deciding if I were trustworthy. Whatever he saw when he looked at me must have convinced him of my standing, because his mouth relaxed into a soft, kind smile. He leaned forwards in his chair, resting his arms on the table between us.
“In my opinion, madam, anything can seem believable to a clouded mind. It’s easy to convince yourself that everything you’ve felt your entire life was a lie the moment you are forcibly numbed to those feelings.”
I nodded, finding it rather difficult all of a sudden to believe that this wise insight came from a man of merely twenty. His pale blue eyes were youthful, sweet almost, but I knew he had seen a lifetime’s worth of pain and heartache. And yet, somehow, he maintained a certain lightness about him. I thought about Siobhan, and how she, too, had seen pain. I could see it in her eyes, too, the way I could in John’s. But where John’s eyes showed his eternal optimism, Siobhan’s showed the opposite. I’d seen defiance in them , yes, stubbornness even, but the look in her eyes, that first time I heard her speak, was a look of hopelessness.
At the end of our allotted time, I closed John’s file and stood to escort him from our meeting, thanking him for being open and honest with me.
“Jamie and I, we’ve had a rough time.” He turned and smiled once more as he stepped out into the hall. “You are impossible not to like.”
I watched him leave, but I couldn’t help wondering what he really meant by that. Had I been too friendly towards him? I thought back to my medical school lessons on the boundaries we should never cross, particularly with mental health patients who were quite vulnerable and impressionable. Had I forgotten my place as a professional and had he- Christ, was he saying he liked me, or that Siobhan did?
* * *