When I first saw Gordon, it was my second year at Moorebank Asylum. “Your daughter has a cancer of the mind, Mrs Davis,” the doctors had told my mother. “She’s very sick.” They stuck needles in me after tea on the first night, and for the next three months thereafter. Those doctors said it was some new-fangled, Eastern treatment for my conditions—psychosis, lunacy, neurosis . . . the list of ‘ailments’ goes on and on. After they’d stopped with the needles and Doc Taylor made note of my negligible improvements, Mother paid another thousand-or-so dollars so I could stay “just one more month.”
When I came back to my room that day, Gordon was there. Just outside the window. I liked to imagine he was smiling at me with those kind eyes of his, but I could never really tell. It would’ve been rude of me otherwise, so I said, “Hi, what’s your name?” He told me he was Gordon, and we exchanged pleasantries. Maybe he didn’t remember my name that day, because he didn’t use it when he spoke from then on; he never uses it when we speak. Sometimes, I wonder if I ever told him in the first place. I showed him my bookshelf in the far corner of my room from the window. There was nothing to admire about the shelving itself—all charred and cracked and caked in dust as it was—but the books I kept there were rather exquisite. Patients like me aren’t allowed to read violent books, but I kept two Shakespearean tragedies wedged between the torn-off cover of a King James Bible. Gordon thought that rather clever. I read King Lear to Gordon that first day with the different voices and all. That’s one good thing that can be said about Moorebank Asylum: you can always read aloud to yourself because the doctors think you’re crazy anyway.
On my third night that year at Moorebank, Gordon didn’t appear at my window. I sat all night waiting for him, imagining the things I would say. And, when I hadn’t the opportunity to say them that night, I was in the depths of despair. I had to turn from my bookshelf; I simply couldn’t bear to look where Gordon had, for I felt that he had forgotten me. Early the next morning, while the sun was only just beginning to molest the faraway horizon, I heard a tapping on the window. I knew it was Gordon before I even looked up, because I heard him whisper to me in the yellow dawn. “Of course we can read Act 3 again today, Gordon! Oh, I was beginning to think you’d forgotten where to find me.” I was drunk with a cutting ecstasy, and I could almost taste the loneliness as it passed out my mouth when I spoke those words: “Who’s there, besides foul weather?” Gordon was smiling.
He came every day after that—but at night-time, because I had needles early in the morning and ECT in the afternoon every second day. It wasn’t easy to read to Gordon every second night because my eyes were all fuzzy and they rolled around in my head when I didn’t keep still. “It’s just the ECT, Gordon,” I’d said when he asked. “Nurse Reimer says it relaxes the muscles, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.” I suppose I tried a smile, but my muscles—in their relaxed state—would not allow it. Must’ve looked like a grimace instead—like Charley.
Charley, who belonged to the adjacent room from mine, had been having ECT twice daily. She had ritual moaning sessions all through the night. I’d never been on one of the monthly trips to Torquay Men’s Asylum, but I imagined it wouldn’t sound much different to Moorebank with all the moaning. Take that how you will. Charley had never been on one of those trips either, she told me; “I want to, but I can’t walk far no more.” I’d tell you Charley was a beautiful soul or a kindred spirit, but she was the most disgusting person I’ve ever known my whole life. Mainly, she stank of dried, sultry sweat—a cloud which was impossible to escape. All the ECT must’ve messed with her face, because she never smiled. As a matter of fact, I only ever saw Charley smile once. “Come on,” I’d said to Charley, “smile for me.”
“Why?” she replied. “What’s the use in smiling?” Charley began taking off her clothes, folding them neatly at the foot of her bed. I couldn’t understand why she’d fold them so neat because the bedsheets were knotted and crumpled around them, spilling over onto the concrete floor in yellow-stained pools of crust.
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” I said, averting my eyes from her nakedness.
“And you don’t?”
“What’s the use in asking questions?”
“Tell you why I don’t smile, sister,” Charley said. “And look at me when I say this. Aint we all the same? Look at me and try to tell yourself your body looks anything but a smidge different to mine. We got the same things in the same places. Everybody looks at themselves in the mirror and thinks the same damn things. They know they’re one of an entire planet. Worst part is, they treat it like a private thing. So my smiling is a statement. I smile in secret like my smile is the only smile on Earth. We all got smiles like we all got breasts here. And do you know why smiles are so rare in this place?”
“Because we’re all sad,” I mumbled at the wall.
“That aint it!” Charley slammed her fist against her wooden bedframe. “It’s because we know how fake a smile can be. Everyone here. They call us insane, don’t they?”
“I don’t feel insane.”
“That’s because you aint. None of us are. We’re saner than everyone else and that’s why we ended up here. Say, do you know William Shakespeare?” All I could do was stare at her. She stood up and the shadow of her figure fell against the room’s far wall. “Take a look here,” she said, hobbling over to a dusty bookshelf. There was only one book on the shelf: Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, but it looked too thick. That’s when I knew.
“Which one’s in there?” I asked.
Charley looked at me. She said, “Only the best. King Lear. Lear was supposedly insane, you know. Cordelia too, and look what good became of them! William knew a thing or two about madness that no doctor will ever understand. Would you like to read some?”
“Dramatically?” I was smiling.
“Is there any other way?” Charley was not.
I was sent to my room later that evening when Charley was dragged away for her ECT. Gordon was at my window when I returned. For a moment, I couldn’t remember his name. I just stared at him, turning over the furniture in my mind and trying to find where I’d left the memory I was looking for. “Gordon!” His face was sombre, so I stood as still as I could, waiting for him to talk. I wanted him to tell me everything was going to be okay—just as usual—but he didn’t say a single thing. He just stood there at the bars, illuminated by the silver light of the moon. It felt as if we must’ve sat there in silence for hours, only broken by the sound of my door inching open. I spun around to see who it was: only Doc Taylor.
“How are you, Miss Davis?” he said, and took a seat on my bed beside me. He didn’t notice Gordon, though Gordon was still framed in my window behind us. We both stared at the decrepit bookshelf. You can tell when somebody’s finding their words, because the silence they make is deafening—so alive with thought—and Doc Taylor was doing just that. Then he placed his hand on my knee, which made me jump, and turned to stare deep into my eyes. When I looked back at him, however, he averted his gaze and drew shallow breaths like a man being woken from a nightmare. “How did you get along with Mrs West?”
“Mrs who?” I asked. I supposed there were very many Mrs Wests floating about and I was bound to have met one at some point, so I quietly added, “Oh, just swimmingly. That being, we did go swimming one day down at Lake Kitterman . . . the sun was blistering and my mother made me wear sun cream and Mrs West’s husband made her wear some. She got married very young, poor Mrs West, though her husband loved her very—”
Doc Taylor: “Mrs Charley West, hon, was an accountant in Idaho when you were growing up in Texas.” He shifted on the bed. Then he took my left hand in his right. “You can’t have known each other then.” He must’ve found her copy of King Lear, I thought . . . he was here to check my books too. “I just wanted to know how you two got along here in the asylu—the house.”
“Oh, just swimmingly,” I echoed. I was trying not to look at the bookshelf anymore. Would there be more ECT if that bastard found out?
“Well, I came to tell you that Mrs West has to go away for a while. She got sick.” There were no tears in Doc Taylor’s eyes, but he was making a face like there ought to be. I thought about what Charley had told me: we know how fake a smile can be. Yeah, and we tend to know how fake everything can be. I looked at this man from head to toe and that’s the only word I could muster: “Fake! Fake! Fake!” I started punching him everywhere I could. He took to his feet with a start and dashed to the door.
“You fucking freak!” he called back, and the door slammed. Chains jangled, and I heard the familiar thud of my door’s lock. They only locked doors when residents began threatening the safety of the carers. A fucking freak like me. I turned to the window to ask Gordon for help, but all I saw—distorted by a wall of salty tears—was an owl perched there, pushing itself against the bars. I must’ve howled or screamed or moaned, because the owl cocked its tawny head and flew right off into the darkness. I called for him, but he never knew my name.