No Windswept Corner by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
New Westminster, Canada. 1897
Doctor Harcourt looked at me with sadness in his eyes. I knew what he was going to say. I watched the muscles in his jowly middle-aged face struggle for control.
“I’m afraid there is nothing I can do, Mrs. Ross. You have a few months to live, at most.”
His words were gentler than the words in my head. “It’s cancer. I can hardly breathe for the pain in my chest and my head. One day soon I’m going to die.”
Ignoring my thoughts, I reached over to pat his arm. “I know. Don't worry. Would you like a cup of tea?”
I think he would have been more relieved if I had burst into tears. He would know how to cope with tears. He would have a supply of comforting words, well rehearsed and, to me, meaningless.
“Tea would be very nice.”
I managed to smile at him. He was, after all, a kind man. We had employed a series of doctors for the women here at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in the twenty years since this new one was built. He was most certainly the kindest or I would have found a doctor in town for myself. He didn’t want tea; he was just taking time to be sure I understood this diagnosis fully.
I went behind the screen to put on the grey dress I considered to be my uniform as the Matron – and in fact the only attendant - in charge of the women’s ward. “Could anyone make some tea?” I called.
By the time I had run a comb through my mostly white hair and noticed that I had seemed to lose weight even since this morning, Miss McAdam, a long-time patient, had delivered tea and shortbread to my bedside table. It arrived so promptly that the doctor and I looked at each other and laughed.
“I know wealthy, influential people who don’t get service like that.” he said. “Was she waiting behind the door with a tray?”
I poured the tea quickly, knowing it must have been stewing in the pot for a while. Indeed, it was strong, but it was hot and it eased my edginess.
Doctor Harcourt looked at me over his glasses. “You’ve known for a while, haven’t you?”
I nodded “I’ve written a will, and a list of instructions about who should get all my little odds and ends – if they should want them.”
“I’m sure you have, but what about you? You live here in the lunatic asylum, in charge of the women’s side. When you are too ill to work, where will you go? They will want your rooms for the person who replaces you.”
I had thought about that, but still I had no answer. “I have no home of my own, but I can keep on working.” I said it as if I believed it.
“For how long?”
I took a sip of tea instead of answering. He bit into a second biscuit and murmured “Excellent shortbread. Who made it?”
“I don’t know.” I wasn’t going to tell him that patient Firth was an excellent baker and competently ran our tiny kitchen where she made tastier snacks than anything the institutional kitchen sent over. If he knew that, he would feel it only professional to pronounce her cured and discharge her to an abusive husband.
“I’m sure you do know, Mrs Ross. The day you don’t know exactly what goes on around here will be the first.”
But he smiled as he picked up his medical bag to leave.
“You’ll have to report my illness to the superintendent.” I said, hating the words because the superintendent could force me to leave tomorrow.
“I will.” He paused. “But not today. I think that might wait for a while.”
He must have seen my relief as I showed him to the door. I was reprieved but I had to seriously consider what I would do when I was too ill to work. Having no home of my own meant I lived right here with the women in the asylum. I have family – a couple of sisters who are dear to me, but they are married, and they live hundreds of miles away. I have many friends, but none I want to impose myself on as I weaken and die.
My whole life was here with these women whose behaviour had elicited a diagnosis of ‘disturbed’ or ‘of unsound mind’, which committed them to the asylum. I had been caring for them since I was appointed its first female employee.
I went to bed after Dr Harcourt’s visit, alternately wondering what it was like to die and where I would go to do it. My imagination showed a windswept corner with me in the darkness huddling beside a tall brick building – a bank, maybe - for shelter. I found no comfort that night, nor in the weeks that followed. I told no one, although I watched the superintendent for any sign that he was aware of my diagnosis.
However, I did observe changes in the ladies who lived in what was coldly referred to as ‘the female side’. I have often thought of myself as a steady, trustworthy old hen trying to control a large group of distracted chickens all running in different directions propelled by whatever brain fever afflicted them.
They are admitted here, sometimes half-undressed, matted hair, wild, coarse language, ready to hit out at anyone, or alternatively, semi-conscious, inert, unresponsive. I try to get them looking better – surely they feel better with warm clothes and combed hair. Most of them shy away from human contact like a frightened horse. Terrified. It’s a matter of gentling them down and assuring them I will not hurt them.
My patients, starting years ago with a few ladies clearly not in control of their behaviour, have grown into a flock of thirty. Our female side of the asylum is home to everyone from ladies of the night like our frequently-naked Miss Green who likes to be called by her stage name ‘Emerald’, to elderly ladies who cannot even remember their name. Each day is eventful.
From the beginning, when I was shown my first patient huddled in a stinking straw-filled cell, I struggled to create a decent place in which they could recover. First, clean straw, then a room with toilet facilities and no straw. And from there, managing to give the ward a living room and sleeping area that feel more home-like. It’s a challenge, though, in this new institution – it has twelve-foot ceilings, high windows and unrelieved brown linoleum.
But I’ve put comfortable stuffed chairs from the homes of my friends in our living room here, pictures on the wall, a hearthrug that my mother made years ago. And yes, I insisted on a proper dining table with a white tablecloth, usually a vase of flowers and forks and knives. The male staff on their side of the asylum find this completely ridiculous. Why would anyone bother with tablecloths and flowers and knives? Knives for heavens sake! Outcasts of society did not deserve such consideration.
Having each woman fully clothed at the dining table is a considerable achievement for me even now. But I ignore remarks from the male side and, because I am the longest-serving employee, I have been allowed my idiosyncrasies.
As my pain increased, it seemed that my patients came to the table properly dressed more often, in fact practically every day. I noticed patients like plump, energetic Mrs. Fortescue making sure that our routines ran smoothly. Ladies who disrobed in public, whether forgetfully or with intent, were dressed in more layers. When I looked out into my garden that I had been unable to weed for weeks, I saw that it was weed free. When my roses bloomed, they appeared in a vase on the table. I could have questioned it but I never found the strength.
Daily I became weaker, I could not deny it. No matter how firmly I ordered myself to get up and tend to my duties, sometimes I just couldn’t.
The cook, whose big kitchen across the courtyard supplies meals to patients in the whole complex of buildings, sent across the usual lumpy porridge for breakfast for all of us. One morning Mrs Fortescue arrived at my bedside with delicately scrambled eggs and toast with the crusts removed.
I couldn’t believe it. “Did cook send this?”
“I didn’t lay them myself.”
I felt too ill to pursue it. Later, in a moment when my head was clear, I wondered if the superintendent knew I was ill and had ordered special food. Which would be nice, but he could just as easily order removal from my position, and I would be out on the street. Always in my mind was that picture of me lying on the windswept corner, alone, cold, in pain, waiting to die.
I wondered if perhaps I could behave irrationally, even badly, and get myself admitted here as a patient. I could rip my clothes off in the middle of a busy street like Miss Mills had done, scaring the horses, and outraging a neighbour who wrote a virulent letter to the local paper. Disrobing would earn me a straight jacket. But no, I couldn’t do that, not even to avoid the windswept corner.
The more pain I felt, the worse my imaginings became. Winds howled across my corner and snow drifted across my legs. Icicles waited above to drop and stab me. Doctor Harcourt had brought me strong pills, but I had put them on a high shelf so I wouldn’t be tempted. I thought no-one knew about them, but a couple of times when the pain was bad, I saw Mrs. Fortescue look up there meaningfully. I’ve no idea how she knew they were there.
One particularly bad day the Superintendent announced he would visit us. He usually preferred to stay over on the male side, and he had not visited us for over a year, presumably relying on my daily reports that all was well. For his visit I had to have help from my patients so I could sit up straight when he arrived.
As he came bustling in, I realised that I should have gone across to his office that morning to report, and I hadn’t. Had I gone yesterday? And the day before? Why was my mind not supplying the answers to these simple questions?
“Dr. Harcourt tells me you are unwell.”
“I am perfectly well, thank you. Miss McAdam, please see the birdcage is cleaned out and the canary is given fresh seed.”
The Superintendent took a deep breath. “Mrs. Ross, the doctor says your…illness will become increasingly severe.”
“Have you found any fault with my work, sir?” I tried to sound confident and poised but in all honesty I couldn’t remember whether everything had been done, properly or not.
“No. no. Not at all. All appears to be as it should be.”
“I apologise that I did not report today. I will be sure to report to you tomorrow.”
Although how I would be able to make my legs walk the distance across the courtyard and up the steps I did not know. It was another unanswered question.
Without conscious effort I found myself asking the one vital question “Sir, how long will I be allowed to live here as my condition deteriorates?”
The room went silent as if everyone was waiting for the answer. The canary stopped singing. The bubbling kettle was lifted from the fire. For a moment, no one moved except old Mrs. Peters who continued to sing her ABC song in the old rocking chair that used to be my mother’s.
“That is the reason I am here.”
Here it comes, the windswept corner.
“Instructions came from senior government members this morning. Their Excellencies have kindly recognised your long and exceptional service. They informed me that you are to remain in your rooms here as long as you wish to, and that proper nursing care will be provided for you as long as you need it. I have been instructed to start seeking nursing care for you immediately.”
I became aware of Mrs. Fortescue standing on one side of me and Miss McAdam on the other, as if to hold me up if I should need support. I realised the Superintendent had been facing not just me but three of us. Old Mrs. Peters stopped rocking and came to pat the Superintendent’s carefully combed grey hair. Miss McAdam dropped the canary litter into the trash and brought a biscuit across to him in her hand. Without waiting for my response, he fled the room.
I’m not sure how long they looked for a nurse although I seem to remember the ladies acted quite badly every time a possible candidate was introduced. There were spates of disrobing, fights, china flying through the air, outbursts of profanity and even some incontinence, which I hadn’t seen for years. When the potential nurse left, calm returned.
In moments of clarity, I understood what my ladies were doing. Mrs. Fortescue and Miss McAdam kept everything the way I had run it, with two ex-ladies-of-the-night firmly told to keep their clothes on and look after our senile old dears.
I worried that Doctor Harcourt might notice their lack of insanity and discharge them. I even asked them if they might prefer to be discharged. They declined, Mrs. Fortescue becoming very agitated. Next time he arrived, both she and Miss McAdam tore at the hair, called each other names I won’t repeat and began to throw punches.
Finally, he said, “Are you well enough to tell them to stop that? Tell them I understand. I know what’s going on. No new nurse. No discharges. They can look after you.”
And because I was feeling more and more ill, I asked him to reach the pills down. But the bottle was almost empty.
“I didn’t take any.” I gasped. “I truly did not.”
Doctor Harcourt looked at the bottle, looked at me. “Don’t concern yourself. You can have some more.”
“I didn’t!” I insisted. Surely even if my brain has been slightly obscure, I hadn’t climbed up unconsciously and dosed myself. Surely not.
Mrs. Fortescue pushed between the doctor and my bed and whispered in my ear. “You didn’t. I did. I’ve been dosing you whenever you looked weaker. That’s how you kept going for so long.”
Doctor Harcourt either heard or chose not to hear. He was looking the other way. I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I knew I could let go. I had done enough. I could greet the end from within this bed, surrounded by the patients – no, the ladies who cared for me.
The gale calmed. The snow petered out. Warmth crept over me.
No windswept corner.