No Escape From The Cupboard — Part 4
WARD 9 ESCAPE COMMITTEE
Looking back from this position, over the last 38 years, I am finding it hard to remember quite how restricted my life was all those years ago.
I went into hospital in August 1979 and finally left in October 1981. That is 26 months. That is a long time to be spent under permanent scrutiny. And, that is what it was. I was always under observation. Even when I was working at Larkhill or in the Depot. From the moment I woke up until I finally managed to get some sleep, I was being observed and my actions appraised. My moods and behaviour were assessed. I was weighed and constantly tested. My blood was tested every week. I sat lengthy psychometry tests. I had sessions with the doctor where I had to tell him how I was feeling.
My time was regulated from the moment I got out of bed until I finally nodded off. Breakfast, gym, day-centre, group-sessions, lunch, more sessions, tea, bed-time. All regulated.
I managed to find time to lay on my bed and read, but there was never any sense of being out of the spotlight.
I’m not sure I entirely appreciated the implications at the time. I was living in Ward 9. I had my own bed-space, with a locker and a chair. I could draw the curtains around if I wanted some privacy. But not too much. For example, if I was feeling horny and needed some release I had to find somewhere private to have a session with Rosie Palms and her five lovely daughters. It wasn’t easy. I nearly said ‘it was hard’. Freudian slip. Ha ha ha. It was very frustrating.
I guess they were concerned about how ill I was. And I was very ill, but an endless diet of close scrutiny soon becomes unpalatable.
Having said that, it was probably no worse than being a single soldier living in barracks. Admittedly, as an NCO, I had my own bunk, but still, everything was communal. I suspect this is a situation that hippies living in a commune would find it hard to understand about the private life of the British squaddie. A young lad living in barracks is never guaranteed any privacy. All human behaviour is in the public domain. All of it. Every tiny, personal bit. Now and back then.
During those years on Ward 9, I knew I could be away from immediate observation if I went out onto the Common. But, if I stayed out for too long they would send someone to find me. They didn’t like me going astray. Not that it was ever my intention to do so. I didn’t care. I still needed time away from prying eyes. Just to have some alone-time. I could have a look at the gorse, while random people walked by. They were nothing to do with the Ward 9 routine. That is what I wanted.
When I started hanging around with Blackheath Morris Men things took a different turn. If I ever wanted to go out on dance tours I needed to find some subversive means of getting off the ward.
If I wanted to get off the ward I needed a pass, signed by the Medical Officer In Charge. In practical terms, this meant the Ward Sister.
I think it is fair to say she was a bit of a harridan. She was one of those old-fashioned nurses who was wedded to the profession. I’m not sure if they exist any more, but whenever I think back, the image of Hattie Jaques comes to mind.
“Carry On Sister!”
If I wanted to go out, she was the three-headed hound guarding the exit portal. Not an unreasonable way of looking at it.
So, while being a mental patient and undergoing therapy, I was leading a parallel life as a folk-dancer and musician. I just couldn’t let any of the hospital lot know about it.
One of the Morris-Men worked as a manager for a holiday company and he had arranged for us to go to Majorca for a long weekend. This was in January 1981. I had to wangle a means of being off from Thursday afternoon until Monday afternoon. This was not going to be easy. Normally, a pass would last from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. 12 hours, max. I needed 96 hours. Also, instead of the permitted 25 miles, it was slightly over 1000 miles. This would require a cunning plan.
Luckily, during my time in the Junior Leaders Regiment, I had learned how to deal with this sort of stuff. Wednesday mornings: Junior Leaders Cunning Plan Course. I passed with flying colours.
I had a word with my sister. She got in touch and asked if I could have some compassionate leave to attend my Grandfather’s funeral in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Just provided my Grandfather never got wind of it.
She didn’t even have to come and collect me. I just had to be discreet about packing my morris gear. The Morris Men were a bit surprised when I turned up at the airport in a sombre suit.
The weekend was great. We were staying at some resort near Porto Cristo. There was a festival (I have no idea!). All we needed to do were a few show-dances at various resort hotels. The rest of the time was ours. I went swimming and visited a few local places of interest. Most of the rest of the team spent the time getting plastered on weird cocktails. “Death-in-the-afternoon”. Instead of that, I hired a moped and visited the Drac Caves. Fun!
I got back to hospital on the Monday, looking suitably sombre. My keyworkers didn’t ask me about the funeral, considering I would have been in too much of a fragile state to deal with it. Result!
The next time I had this sort of freedom was when I was allotted a bunk at the Artillery Depot. It was great. No-one knew whether I was supposed to be in the hospital or in the depot. I had never known such freedom in my life before this time.
I nearly fainted with the headiness of it all.
So, all I can do is to thank Eve O’Mahoney, Steve Garley and Janice Meldrum for never having communicated with each other.
God bless them all.