By Jim Murray
She seemed to glide like a phantasm among the vegetable patches, misty and ethereal. She appeared to them far off, yet nearby, clothed in dimensions beyond melancholy. Here they vegetated as inert grunters, rootless beyond space and time’s creasing ravages. They planted themselves, or were planted, in neat serried lines about the wishy-washy walls. The brown leathery chairs folded around their old skins like cowls and habits. The present was mute with vapid screaming, conceived in dulled skulls, but aborted on furry tongues by tranquilliser drinks that enhanced the uselessness of all effort. The slow trudge of the sequence of present tenses spawned units of being or non-being in time, where the muffled mind eked on dimmed recollections. Here they were, the doe-eyed butterfly-caked dreams of the past, yet not passed over. Miss Mooney fed the acid-tormented stomachs, and her jollying-up was the engine of all life there. On their bloated hips, pallid skins were painted with midnight’s bedsores.
Miss Mooney bobbled about the day room, her whiskey nose moving the tedium of the ward’s melodramas forward into the insanity clauses of time. The routines of non-description hung like peeling paint upon the perpetual motion machine of her ample loins and the starkness of her red nose. She rushed like Rudolph the famous reindeer to expedite the meals down the pipes of gastric rooms. A stench of withering infested the air with a rancid odour there, where fear fell foul of urine-scented sheets. It mingled with the Weedol medications that were spooned down gurgling throats, accompanied by the perpetual philharmonias of Miss Mooney’s chatter. Sometimes the silences echoed the loneliness of space voids. Sounds feigned a sort of far-off quality as the muted screamed into the vacuums of deafness, folding themselves into the deep valleys of the sofas. They flicked their fingers and legs in a constant agitation of nerve-dulled tics.
A carrot head, from a more ambulant patch, strayed in, rotavating among the tall ashtrays; a seeker of lip-sticked stems of nicotine, he moved erratically on a journey in search of his reason for being. The lovely scent of his Lady Nicotine was the redeemer of his ashen worldview. Now he discovered a larger treasure, lying upon the faded tiles and scrunched to flatness by a clay boot. A discard of haste, the cigarette was flung to the randomness of the room when a sudden hysteria abandoned its smokestack and shrieked a long tunnel of partial death to the tomb of the locked ward. Here the romance of a knight on a pale-faced charger had drowned in the hapless waters of a hypodermic Weedol, designed for the hopelessness of the nothingness realms.
Miss Mooney was inured to such extravaganzas of emotion as she continued to ad lib her loins in ceaseless activities, feeding, and cajoling. She composed her ceaseless singsong that echoed like supermarket music over the drone of anxious cogitations.
Now, for a moment, she glanced at a marrow over by the potty shed. It was big and fat and green with medicine. Green was the palliative for those rotting cores, which bled passion, like mischief gangrene, festering in the stems of the vegetable patch. Suddenly, Miss Mooney halted in her stride and her sing-songing arias faded to a whispered groan. Her venous hands swept a tiny bead of perspiration from her brow. Beyond her eyes the skulls settled upon her as if in a startle. The known familiarity abrupted and a new and unknown present were foisted upon the vegetable strainer of the moment. Miss Mooney retreated in a slow daze towards the potty shed and pushed the narrow shaft into closure. In the same spot as the first, another drip of sweat bled from the same pore. The blue-veined hands held her earlobes close to her mousy hair and she spoke in a whisper, addressing the inanity of the lewd graffiti scraped upon the bolted door.
‘Ah, Johnny didn’t you know that it was you I loved.’
Then, as rapidly as the dart of anguish, her hands dropped into the blue pocket of her uniform. Miss Mooney whipped the flask quickly to her vulval lips and swigged the whiskey in sufficient quantity to allay the invasions of fearful cogitations.
‘Ah, Johnny,’ but the words were lost upon the invisibles of incomprehension.
Someone was pounding a loud tattoo upon the toilet door, insistent and violent as a call to battle. It was the carrot head. Between the silent niches where the drumming would cease, the same demanding phrase was echoing across the shattering awareness of Miss Mooney’s brain.
‘Give me a light,’ said the carrot head.
Miss Mooney ignored the megaphone in her brain. She held the whiskey bottle to her quivering lips and siphoned the dregs in energetic guzzles that noised like bathwater rushing to a plughole.
‘Give us a light,’ the one outside the door repeated more loudly and insistently than before.
It seemed to Miss Mooney as if a requiem of hysteria was shrieking loudly in her brain, where neuron and axon and dendrite did battle with the gastric odours of nausea. For a moment Miss Mooney heard a bird as if it were somewhere far out in the cosmos. Its crystal clear voice, pure and unsullied, reminded her of an older time. It penetrated the ache of a thousand days within her, provoking a moist expression of liquid sorrow to trickle down her cheeks. She thought it was as the song of a cherub that equalled the exquisite pain of those moments of beauty when Johnny had entered her universe, and she on transports of joy could believe in dreams and loveliness.
‘Give us a light,’ and the insistent drumming began again in tandem with the demand. Miss Mooney composed herself and resurrecting her classic voice, pulled the shaft back and smiled her operatic best again. With a light soprano lilt she lit the lip-sticked stem and the dull grey fog of cigarette smoke threw a cloak of twilight into the little area there.
Back in the day room, life lay finite in its possibilities for those cowled in medication under the slow scowl of the snailing clock. The sting of time could not sting, and its poison tooth was numbed and benumbed by the feasts of personal chemical growth promoters. Outside the window, somewhere in the naked trees of autumn, that bird called again. Then the compost heap heaved, and the moment was thieved by the gruntings of ennui so that the moments Miss Mooney wished had never been.
‘Ah, Johnny, why did you ruin it all?’ But she was bartered to the denizens of this cave that traded their beads of sweat to the nothingness of oblivion where a bird trilled outside the four corners of the day room world.
The dinner was wheeled in, creating a steam horizon that mingled with the smoke of the day. The mash of British Queens, with three speed lumps on ladled plates, consorted with swedes lately emigrated from the turnip patch. The vegetables of omnivorous intent were now slowly forming a fodder queue for the machine of treatment and the Weedol of medical management.
So, they pluck the rusted turnips from the mindless colander of melancholy, and then spoon the plants into a cryptic cross, upon a cabbage heap of glory. ‘Give us another fag,’ the carrot head twittered and repeated in a boyish manner as he stuffed the reconstituted mash into his moistening lips. It seemed to Mooney as if a requiem of hysteria was singing raucously in her brain, where neuron and dendrite and axon did battle with the gastric odours of nausea.
‘Give us a fag,’ the carrot head says but a wizard waves a wand for the others to queue for dinner. It was Miss Mooney’s call to arms once more.
Over by the radiator the cabbages heave a grimace of acknowledgement and battle with gravity and the rickety chairs. They rise and splutter before the masterworks of baked beans and swede heads and they groan and boil beneath the weight of hells.
Martha Mooney sat upright in bed in her rented room and stared into the tarmacadam of midnight. She cast the net of memory over the depopulating sea of years and her mind played the frets of a dragging dirge. She stood as a silent sentinel over the graveyard of the family. She alone remained above the earthenware receptacle of the grave as the last of the Mooneys from the house at the village end.
Josephine had flown from the mortal coop at forty. She took off on her eternal voyage almost as suddenly as she had made her wailing debut into the world when Martha was four. Her going had the sharp edge of unexpectedness carved upon its grieving tear-falls. But, Martha Mooney had seen the prolonged droop of spirit whose clouds had dropped a sudden squall that bore the mortal drips of Josephine’s decease. And just last springtime, Tom had faded into black as he dimmed over a fortnight of horror between the drip feeds and nasal tubes. There was a thin line between medicine and horror, Martha thought. She reconnoitred the memory of the medical people who worked like ants around Tom’s failing body as it dropped into the endless mystery of death. Her credulity was a beggar when the curtain of finality fell upon his ashen cadaver.
Childhood had been a copybook writ with the ink of a disillusion. The lore of the family had Martha playing as an eternal extra in the B movies of life. The kindly, caring Martha Mooney would play second violin in the secret orchestration of possibility that was scripted by the family. Josephine was beautiful and intelligent and would marry into wealth. Handsome Tom had the stage writ upon the tablet of his destiny. Plain Jane Martha had eked out a life on the edges of the Mooney realms living upon the inference of her own unworthiness and the innuendo of second best. What matter, now that the family had disappeared into the muddy morass of no return? Martha Mooney was left as the central cog that whirred in the psycho-geriatric ward. Here time’s discards vegetated and the world’s old rubbish entered on wheels and exited through the bowel movements of shovelled earth. Moments in her unfulfilment Martha Mooney longed for the denouement of that cavity. In her sixty long years only Johnny had been the light that had lit the lamp of her heart and made her glow. But the family barred the way. Johnny’s paltry income and dim prospects were never enough to buy the flight of wedding confetti from them.
‘Oh! Johnny, didn’t you think we could have eloped?’ Martha Mooney found herself talking to the blackboard dark of the bedroom. Her words made no marks upon its unconcerned oblivion.
In the staffroom, Matron sorted the files as Miss Mooney relished a cup of refreshment in tandem with a cigarette’s rising plumes. Matron was talking of the new arrival, a Mr. John ---, a stroke patient and terminal with it.
‘A prisoner, it seems, and long term,’ and as the matron’s voice quivered to a halt, Miss Mooney’s brain became a cacophony of confusion as the cigarette made fogs near the ceiling’s lid.
Back on the ward the cauliflowers snored against the warmth of the day room radiator. Miss Mooney glanced furtively down the corridor of beds. Slowly she walked down the ward and stood with head half bowed before the sleeping geriatric in the corner.
A trickle of liquid sentiment moved down her ageing face. Suddenly, she spied the carrot head. He grinned in a slight stoop.
‘For you – happy Christmas, Martha,’ he said.
And carrot head’s hand was giving her a new packet of cigarettes.
Then a sound, almost inaudible, but yet discernible, drifted in from the vegetable patch as old hands were touching in a wedding of congratulatory applause.
‘Happy Christmas,’ repeated the carrot head as the slow trickle of sentiment gorged to a lachrymose flood of gratitude. Martha Mooney turned once more to the horizontal form in the bedstead and believed for a moment that the paralysed countenance of the dying was smiling at her.
Outside, a bird trilled an aria of beauty beyond the panes of the vegetable world.
The carrot head nodded and ambled away and the vegetable patch faded to muteness once more.
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