Eve and the Gate
© Jon Horne
Eve Kelly trudged across the rock-hard grass of Six Ways island. The only car on the roundabout was a red Montego with an exhaust problem, carrying a West Indian family to a church in Witton or Handsworth. Eve waited for the smoke to clear, then crossed diagonally onto Heathland Road. Cans and broken glass littered the Green Man car park. Oil dripped and spread from an upturned drum in Wellingtons garage forecourt onto the icy pavement. Why did she always end up with the Sunday morning shift?
- You cant expect me to work Sundays, not with a family -
- You only live over the road, its not as if you have to drive in -
- Its time and a half and what with your Sean out of work...
Et cetera. One day shed tell them to stick it. One day.
She looked up at the sign at the entrance. Ten feet by six, it said Heathland Hospital in large, rounded letters over a background of green trees and grassy dales.
Behind the sign, covering a block a quarter of a mile square, was a tall, dirty Victorian redbrick building with tiny barred windows set into thick walls surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with inward-facing spikes. The drainpipes and guttering were spiralled with barbed wire. Eve pressed the security button at the gate.
Hello? said a distorted voice.
Its Eve, said Eve. The buzzer went.
Alright, darling, said the security guard, giving a shiny-toothed leer as she walked into the building. Have a good night last night, did you?
Actually she had. It was her twenty-fifth birthday and there was a party in her honour. It was supposed to be a surprise, but Seans sniggering pretence of forgetting the date had told her what was afoot. She pouted as best she could during the short bus-ride to her mothers, then was genuinely touched to find a house full of brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and great-aunts, some of whom had crossed the water to be there.
The security guard made a guttural noise and swivelled his chair, keeping her inside the angle of his splayed legs as she walked away from him. Eve imagined herself as he saw her, backside wiggling down the corridor; inviting. She snorted derisively, hoping he would hear.
The Sunday morning shift was not difficult. Those patients who liked to cook were allowed once a week to fry themselves a breakfast, and much of the work consisted of supervising them. Otherwise it was mostly a case of making sure that the right drugs went down the right throats. Father Cullen from St. Saviours church arrived and performed a short service in the chapel whilst the former Right Reverend Arnold Forbes paced around Ward C composing sermons that no one would ever hear.
Perhaps it was a hangover, but Eve felt her thoughts confused and weighed down. She watched old ladies humming too loudly whilst the bacon sizzled, sometimes talking - but usually to themselves and always in non-sequiturs - and she wondered what was the point.
This wasnt like her at all. She was busy pulling herself together when she had to take Mr Johnson - a wiry and heavily-sedated ex-miner whom the other nurses insisted on calling Eddie - to the toilet. He didnt get there in time and crouched on the floor in shame and bewilderment. She looked down at him and suddenly felt a blast of terror, a vision of looming female omnipotence bearing down to strike. She leapt back, then moved slowly to one side and knelt down beside the old man, avoiding a pool of urine and loose excrement that was spreading across the floor. She took his hand and led him to the bathroom, shielding his eyes from the withering glare of an orderly who had arrived to clean up the mess.
She went to the kitchen and sat down, shaking. She was still there twenty minutes later.
Eve? The Ward Sister peered in.
Oh... Anita. Sorry, I had a bad turn in there.
I see, said the Sister, well you should have informed me immediately. There are patients who should not be left.
Yes, I know. Eve stood up smartly. Im OK now.
Sit down and take ten minutes. Ill cover for you.
Eve got through the rest of her duties as brusquely as possible. The Sister came over to her as she was knocking off for the day.
Now you must call in sick if youre not well tomorrow, alright? Well forget today, but youre no use to me like this.
Ill be fine, said Eve.
Make sure you are.
The next morning Eve woke early. Sean had been late in, so shed skipped telling him what had happened. Now she wanted to talk it out, take a little of the weight off - he was good at that, easing trouble away with a calmness that she lacked. But there was something in her husbands expression, something eating away at him.
Sean, whats going on?
He tensed and stared at the ceiling: What do you mean?
Please Sean, dont hide things from me. Somethings on your mind.
Its just... oh, you know...
No I dont. Talk to me.
He stayed silent.
Is it just the Monday morning thing? Dont worry love, theres jobs out there somewhere. Youll find something soon enough.
What if I dont?
Sean, she said after a minute. He turned away. Eve continued: I dont mind living like this, honestly.
Its alright, he said, Ill sort it out.
She felt from him a quiet, cold certainty. He had just made up his mind.
Dont, she said. Whatever it is, its not worth it.
Eve retreated from Seans silence and walked to the High Street for breakfast. As she entered Georges Café she was seized by an irritation with the surroundings, sick of the relentless stench of stale fat and burning toast.
Please? said the scowling Greek behind the counter.
Never mind, Eve said, and hurried outside. Freezing winds buffeted their way up the High Street and made it hard to walk on the ice. At Six Ways bus stop, she felt engulfed by the cold. She slipped and fell onto her back. Boys in the queue pointed and laughed with an aggression that masked sympathy. A man stopped to help her up with a concern that hid bitter enjoyment. She rushed on past the bus stop and turned the corner. She was panting whe she reached the hospital gate.
The security guard let her in.
Been in the wars a bit, eh darling?
She was on her way to the bathroom to clean herself up when she met Miss Peterson in the corridor, trying to escape. Miss Peterson had been in Heathland for more than sixty years, and made this trip along the passageway about once a month. Eve stood in front of her, took her hand, and began to lead her back to the ward.
- No, not that way - Ill be late for the tram.
Sorry? said Eve.
- Black cars on Gravelly Hill - Maiden aunts on the tram, trussed up and peering down their noses - A loose one, that Annie Peterson - Youll see - my Arthurs not one of your fly-by-nights - off to see him right now - then youll be laughing on the other side of your faces, me wed and you still stuck up and moping - What am I doing out here? I want to go back to bed - Nursey nursey dont run away, take me back to bed.
There was a howl of jumbled noise. Eve staggered up the corridor and into the ward.
- One two buckle my shoe - well I said yes I did I said no no - one two buckle my shoe - Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked - No I said yes - a peck of pickled Peter Piper picked - And I saw an angel come down from heaven having the key of the bottomless pit - Green roses on a field of mourning sinners waiting for the sandman coming round the mountain on a horse of silver dew I wandered lonely in a crowd water water everywhere and not a drop to think - And he laid hold on the dragon that old serpent which is the devil and Satan and bound him a thousand years -
Nurse Kelly? Eve?! Christ, I think shes having a fit. No, dont move her. Come on Eve, its alright, take my hand. OK lovey?
Eve screamed, pushed the Ward Sister away and ran for the door.
She lay in bed with the duvet over her head. The phone rang and rang. The words in her head went away.
- The covers being lifted gently from the bed to reveal herself - Seans small hairy hand reaching down to touch her shoulder - fear - tenderness - regret - must talk it out.
Stop it! she shouted, returning to herself. Then she felt the shock of being screamed at.
Leave me alone, please!
Seans hurt incomprehension became a dull background noise as he left the bedroom. Eve sank back under the covers. Some time later she felt him again. She looked out and saw his head poking in through the door.
I need to be on my own, Sean.
Then she slept again.
When she woke up, it was morning and Sean had gone. So had the noise.
She was having a breakdown, that was for certain. What to do though? Perhaps it would pass. Or maybe she could learn to control it. Until then, though... Could she talk to anyone about it? That would mean venturing out into other peoples minds again.
Nonsense. These werent other peoples minds, they were delusions. All the patients heard voices in their heads, it went with the territory. She should go to the doctor.
They might put her in Heathland.
Were they just delusions?
Mad, sad minds swamping her thoughts every day for the rest of her life.
Not Heathland. Not ever.
Take it easy. Start with Sean.
She had a bath and put on jeans and an ironed white blouse. She made up her face and put earrings in - why look like a madwoman? Then she sat quietly. When Sean returned she would let him in. If she heard his thoughts, shed put up with it and try to bring her own mind back to the surface. Who better than Sean? She knew him better than she knew anyone. He loved her, right? No reason to be afraid of his mind.
She sat down again and waited.
She heard his key in the door. Maybe it had stopped.
It hadnt. She felt his mind before she even saw him. When she did see him, she saw herself and him and herself and...
Oh, youre here. I thought youd...
Sean! She breathed deeply. Please be quiet and come over to me, slowly.
Just do it, please.
Her voice sounded deep - an echo. He edged towards her. There was a panic, heart racing. Hers or his? She took another breath. The feeling was bad but it was just his concern. She held out her hands to him. He took her hands in his and the touch was magnified.
Now I want you to listen. In a minute Im going to ask you to go outside again.
- Whats going on? -
Its alright Sean, Im going to tell you all about it. I just have to take it slowly. OK?
- A game? -
Its my mind. Ill have to be alone again soon.
- Eve wants me out - no job no money - Im no man -
Im not well. I might be going... mad. I see things, hear them. No, I want you with me.
What? said Sean.
Think of something.
- It is a game -
Its not a game, Sean. Think of something. Anything.
- This morning - she was angry - this is some sort of a test -
Youre thinking about this morning. This is real Sean, its not a test. Think of something else, I dont know... funny.
- Funny? A clown or -
A clown. A picture of a clown. No, I know its not funny.
- Oh God - Oh God -
Yes, Im scared too. Now please leave me alone again.
She heard the front door click shut. It was only when he had gone that she thought of the telephone. If only... Who else could she call? One person knowing was enough. The phone rang. She shook as she reached for it.
Its me, said Sean, Can you talk to me now?
Thank God, he said.
Was what just happened real?
Tell me! Tell me what just happened.
I came in, you asked me to walk over to you, then...
You read my mind. Am I dreaming this?
Its real. I dont know whats happening.
Im coming back.
Its OK. You go upstairs. Ill leave you on your own.
I dont know.
You were alright last night, werent you? I was in the house all night.
Go upstairs, take it easy and Ill look after you. Shit, the beeps! Ill be there in a min...
The phone went dead. Eve ran upstairs.
She felt something in the house when Sean got back, a background buzz of confused emotion. She breathed deeply and tried to stop the panic. The bed felt soft and warm. She was more tired than ever before in her life. She hovered between sleep and waking. She slept.
- Smells - anticipation -
Why couldnt he leave her alone?
Then he went away again. The smell was food. She looked out of the bedroom door and found a plate of sausages, beans and chips at the top of the stairs, laid out on a tray with salt and brown sauce.
Thanks! she yelled.
Salright! came the reply.
From this distance they could talk. First the food though.
She waited. An hour or more passed as she built her courage up. Then she shouted: Sean, come to the bottom of the stairs.
He approached tentatively until they could see each other. His thoughts were loud now, but still in the background.
Thanks love, she said, holding up the empty plate.
He gave a smile that was all sadness and fear. Then he said: Ive been thinking.
Youre telling me.
We should treat this as an illness, do something to cure it.
Oh no, Im not having them put me in Heathland... no, you werent thinking that.
Dont worry. I just want you to think of something. Think it hard, a picture in your mind. Like I did.
She took a deep breath and thought of the sausages; spicy, meaty, thick and pinky-grey...
Sean crept slowly up the stairs.
...the smell, different to the taste... The background noise got louder, but she kept her thoughts on the food she had just eaten; the aftertaste was still in her mouth. The noise stayed steady as he got closer. Then her concentration wavered and her thoughts were buried by his. She ran into the bedroom.
After a time she felt him again, then heard him shout from the bottom of the stairs.
OK, well try again.
I cant do it!
Yes you can. Come on!
The first thing that came into her head was the iron fence around the hospital. It was painted black and looked like nothing could ever break it down. She imagined touching it, running her hand up a single pole. It was smooth to the touch, then sharp at a rusty patch where the paint had chipped off.
Sean was sitting beside her. It was like listening to a radio with the sound turned up to maximum. He waited for a moment then quietly retreated back down the stairs.
Now were getting somewhere, he said.
Eve was exhausted.
The next day they tried again. And again; six times in all. Eve began to get some control. Bludgeoning waves of thought and image would rise up through her, from her stomach almost, but she held them back, shoring up her weaknesses. When they broke through she would scream and flee, and Sean would hurry away feeling sick and lost. By the following evening she had reduced Seans presence to something like an maddening whistle - but only if she filled her mind utterly with solid, impenetrable images; gates, locked doors, barred windows.
Every moment was an improvement though. That was what made it bearable; the noise was deafening, but it was getting quieter. On Friday morning Eve let Sean into the bedroom.
I told your mother its shingles, he said.
He was sitting at the foot of the bed, she at the head, at opposite corners. She glanced at him, then away. She saw herself in glimpses through Seans eyes, then concentrated on the gate. The vision blurred and her own mind took over.
Ive unplugged the phone as well, Sean added.
Do you think shell stay away?
No he didnt. Sean had a picture in his mind: a bus packed to the rafters with Eves family, turning up outside the house; everyone piling off and stampeding up the stairs to find her cowering in a corner.
Eve slammed the gate shut on the thought. She pictured a deadbolt, tempered steel, inches thick. She clanked the bolt until it held. The noise disappeared.
Sean! There was a silence. She had no idea what he was thinking.
OK, Ill go back down.
No, dont! Its stopped! she said.
The gate rattled. A thought entered like a draught; a suspicious, maybe-it-really-is-a-game thought. Yes, maybe you should go, said Eve. Its getting better though. Itll be alright soon, wont it?
- I dont know - will it? -
Yes angel, youll be fine, he said, and went downstairs.
Eve was left alone in the house. The barrier had held for the night, and Sean had been downstairs anyway. Now he was gone and she sat in the living room, trying to read. She couldnt concentrate and kept reading the same paragraph over and over. Downstairs, outside was too close, but she resisted the force that pulled her back to the bedroom, back under the covers. She tried reading the book again, but lost the plot and clapped the pages together in frustration.
There was an image of worry, of Eve lying sick and untended. Eve tried to shut the gate but found her hand going straight through the metal. Frantically she grabbed and grappled with the ethereal barrier, until she stopped trying, relaxed and took hold. There was a rush of white noise and a deafening crack as she got the gate shut. Her mother was outside.
The real door was proving as hard to open as the imaginary one had been to close. A key rattled in the lock and a Dublin accent spat syllables of annoyance into the street. Eve stopped for a moment and settled herself, then went to the door and took her key out of the lock.
Hello Mum. Sorry, I didnt hear you.
Eves mother bustled forward in ungainly haste with outstretched arms. Eve scuttled backwards along the corridor.
Now dont be silly dear!
Eve continued backing away. Listen love, Eves mother said, I brought seven of you up, I reckon Im immune to a bit of chicken pox, dont you?
Mum, its not chicken pox.
Shingles then. Evie, it wouldnt matter if it was smallpox, not if you need taking care of.
The womans progress was inexorable. The barrier was holding, but only just.
Its not shingles. I caught it off one of the patients. Please, I couldnt stand it if I made you ill.
Oh Evie, Im a tough old boot.
Get away from me! Eve held out her arms, the palms of her hands facing her mother.
OK, if thats what you want. Eves mother sniffed haughtily. There was real worry though, behind the passive aggression. The fondness of the thought entering Eves mind almost made her want to open the gate and let her mother in, but that would ruin everything.
Im in quarantine. They dont know what it is. Im alright though; theres no need to worry.
Well why isnt Sean here looking after you? Its not as if hes got work to go to.
- Lazy weak little man -
He was. All last week. Really, Im on the mend now.
OK Evie, well remember Im just a call away. Oh by the way, I cant get through on your phone. You want to get it looked at.
Yes, Ill do that. Youd better go now, Mum. Really, Im scared of you catching this.
Take care of yourself, alright?
Alright. See you soon.
Eve locked the front door and relaxed the grip on her mind. The gate had stayed closed, mostly. Sometime soon she would be ready to go outside.
Sean stayed out all day. He came home at eleven, tired and preoccupied. Eves gate was now tuned so closely to his mind that she could lock him out without trying. If she could let him in for a second, she thought, she might find out what was wrong, help him through his own trouble. Once again though, the risk was too much. She thought about taking him to bed, then decided to wait until after the weekend. A couple of days wouldnt hurt, and she might be well by then.
Been out with the lads?
Yeah. You dont mind, do you?
Course not. Breathe.
Sean opened his mouth wide and blew hot breath into Eves face.
You havent been drinking.
Sorry love, I tried to get pissed, but one thing led to another and... you know how it is.
Well dont let it happen again. Where did you go?
To see an old mate. Played a few hands.
Dont worry, it was matchsticks and loose change. No ones got any money to lose at the moment.
OK, well keep it that way - with the cards I mean.
Sean looked at Eve, breathed in... and said nothing. She stared back but left it. He could tell her in his own time.
Eve, he said quickly, I may be away tomorrow night. There could be something in it for me.
Its on the sites but its paperwork.
Tell you the truth, its a bit of a cash-in-hander - but Im the one doing the cash.
Kind of, yeah.
Well OK, we need it. Dont get caught.
Right me darlin, Im off to bed. She kissed him slowly. His eyes flickered. And make sure youre back here Monday night. There could be something in it for you.
She turned and went upstairs.
On Sunday morning Eve took her first steps outside of the house. Frost crackled under her feet as she stood on the grass verge by the side of the road. The bells of St. Saviours pealed. An elderly couple hobbled silently past. Their minds were quiet too. Eve held the gate shut without effort. She creased her face into a smile. The old man glanced nervously back, then gripped his wifes arm and tried to hurry on his way.
Sean stood in the hallway carrying a holdall. Eve put her palms together and sucked her teeth. Then she said: Ill walk with you.
The thick dirty ice had cleared from Six Ways. Sean stared back along the road as he stood waiting for the bus to take him into the city. Eve linked her arm with his, but he was stiff and tense. When the bus came into view, she had to stretch up to kiss him goodbye. He softened for a moment and said: You take it easy till I get back. I dont want to be worrying about you.
Stay at home, OK?
OK. Good luck.
Eve returned home and made a cup of coffee. She picked up her book and read a chapter, keeping her concentration all the way through. Then she settled down on the sofa to an afternoon of black and white films on the television.
By the evening she was bored. She phoned her mother and lied about going to the doctors.
She says Im still under quarantine.
But Ill be back to normal on Wednesday.
Not till then?
Alright, well Im pleased for you. Youll come round then?
Good, Ill cook for you. Sean too?
Best not to. Hes got some contract work.
Wonders never cease.
Sorry dear. Right, Ill just expect you then.
There was no way she was ever going back to Heathland. She wasnt even going through the door again - shed send Sean to get her P45 - and shed need another job. But that could wait. She had time to do a few things.
Eve went into the bedroom and found a sketchbook which had lain dormant since school. Rustiness showed; the lines were awkward, but soon she had a serviceable drawing of Miss Petersons vision: Gravelly Hill - in the 1920s probably - less trees, hardly a car to be seen, but trams, a few horses and carts and far, far more people. Maybe something worthwhile could come out of this nightmare.
On Monday night Sean returned and wouldnt sit still or talk. Eve tried affection and then anger, but couldnt get through. She took his hand and began to lead him up the stairs, but he stood rigid at the living room door. There was a blankness in his eyes as she stared into them. She stood close, but stopped at begging him to take her to bed. Sex wasnt going to make him talk, anyway. For a minute, she thought about playing sick, drawing him to her with sympathy - but hed been good and considerate the past week. If he wanted to be on his own, she owed him that.
Eve slept alone and woke to an empty house. Still, much of Sundays confidence remained. The gate was shut without a rattle - without her having to think about it. Today she would go into the city.
The bedroom mirror wasnt being kind. Wrapped up in pullovers, scarves and a thick coat, she was looking more like her mother every day. Freckles covered her face even in winter, and frizzy ginger hair stuck out at all angles from a woolly hat. She was putting on weight. Its just the coat, she muttered as she left the house.
Her heart pounded at the bus stop. There was a long queue and she recognised the man who had picked her up when she fell on her last day at work. He grinned a half-sneer and she didnt want to know what he was thinking.
She pictured deadlocks, Yale locks, mortice locks, and bolted them all. A mediæval portcullis clanged down behind a drawbridge. The bus came. She sat on a bench-seat behind the driver and stared out of the opposite window as the bus climbed the high sliproad over the motorways, onto the Expressway and into the city.
Eve avoided the big crowds on New Street and in Marks and Spencers. She steered clear of Pigeon Park, where those who were slightly too sane for Heathland congregated by the cathedral with drunks and junkies for company. She went into Rackhams and WH Smiths, then headed for the quiet streets behind the railway station. By three oclock she was dog-tired but had a newspaper, some underwear, a new sketch-pad and a packet of charcoal pencils to show for her efforts. She had also lasted the day in town without a relapse.
She had a seat to herself on the bus and sank into it, cold, exhausted and happy. At Aston Cross a man climbed onto the bus, whom she knew vaguely; one of Seans cronies. Hed been at the house before. Eve looked down, hoping he wouldnt see her, then thought better of it and raised her face in a smile.
Across a placid river, a dam broke.
- Oh Christ, why? WHY?? -
Eves gate hung creaking from a single hinge, burst open, distorted and destroyed by a welter of guilt and surprise. Thoughts came to her from all angles, boredom, frustration, warmth and anticipation, weary claustrophobia and repressed passion. The bus seethed with emotion and Eve was sick on the floor. She pushed the man out of the way and ran to the front of the bus.
Let me out! she screamed, spit and vomit still dripping from her mouth. The driver hit the brakes and opened the door. Eve lurched onto the pavement, over a wall and onto some grass. Then she ran. Images followed her from the bus and from the pavement. She had to get away from people, all people. The crazed visions of Heathland were as nothing to this. Her coat flapped open. She held something in her hand - a shopping bag, which she gripped hard as something solid and inanimate. Still she ran, across the grass, under the motorway bridges, and still the visions followed her, fainter now. People were far away.
When she reached the sliproad of the Expressway, the white noise of visions was drowned out by a constant roar from the traffic. She came to a red cliff and there was nowhere else to run. Beyond it, people were nearer.
She ought to have gone back to Heathland. Confusion, repetition and sedated incomprehension would have been possible to live with. Theyd have looked after her in there; Anita knew her and cared about her. Now she had no barriers left, and there was no way back.
The visions she had seen on the bus were dull, mostly. A few glimpses of hope or fear, some love, a little hate, and some startling sexual fantasies. There was a memory though, of herself in the living room handing out a can of lager. Oh Christ, thats Seans bird! Why did you do it? A suitcase full of money being divided - Stop! Sean, stop! - Sean with a crowbar, beating a man in a uniform, smashing the bar into his head until he stopped twitching - Sean staring into nothing - We only wanted the money!
She could have learned to deal with that. Shed never see Sean again. But the gate was gone, beyond repair. Even hundreds of feet away from the nearest person, with the traffics relentless din, the background noise was worse than it had been in the house. She couldnt go near another human being.
There was a hole in the rock wall. She climbed into it. It was dark. That was good, the dark. Perhaps she could sleep a little. Eve found a corner of the cave, curled up and tried not to think.
- - -
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