‘The Connaught Drill Hall, Stanhope Road,’ (1943) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Charlotte Comley’s story, Finding Nora, inspired by this painting.
The Connaught Drill Hall, Stanhope Road by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
by Charlotte Comley
Nora Robertson clicked her tongue in annoyance at her daughter who was staring out into space again.
‘The baby is six months old. You should be over the blues by now. Smile even when you don’t feel like it, you don’t want to give that young man of yours a reason to stray.’
He daughter scooped a lock of her behind her ear, and rolled her eyes, ‘Mother he will stay or go. I’m not changing myself to make a man happy.’
Sometimes Nora wanted to grab her daughter by the shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled. She hadn’t even bothered to put lipstick on when they had come to visit her in hospital. She’d looked pale, awful with limp hair. And although she had to admit Janice was losing the baby weight slowly, she made no secret of feeling tired and would nip to the shop in jogging bottoms. As if sensing the lecture about to unfold, Janice started to gather the baby’s things as her mother sat opposite and regarded her with a critical glare.
‘Janice, no newly married man wants to come home to a sulky depressed wife, you need to get rid of that baby fat, put a bit of make up on. Don’t get up and go home, you promised to show me how to put my holiday photos on Facebook.’
Nora’s daughter didn’t hide her groan, ‘Can’t Alice show you?’
‘She’s at work.’
Janice put the baby bag back down and grumbled that if her mother would use the nice smartphone she and her sister had bought her to take the photographs the whole process would be a lot easier.
‘You’ve got a message from an ‘Annette Barlow’. Do you know her?’
Nora shifted in her chair, ‘Yes she’s a second cousin, and she tracked me down via one of those vile family tree search things.’ A familiar flush of heat burned at the older woman’s face and neck at the thought of distant family, it reminded her of those awkward couple of years during the change, the uncontrollable furnace that would embrace her body. She wished she’d never pressed accept. She wished she knew if people can tell if you unfriend them on social media.
Just found out about your aunt, your mother must have called you Nora after her sister.
It was like when you climbed the stairs at night and you think there is one extra step, your foot goes down expecting solid ground and then falls, making your stomach lurch.
‘I didn’t know you had an aunty, Mum?’
‘Delete it,’ Nora said.
Janice looked up from the laptop confused and a tad hurt at the tone.
‘Delete it,’ Nora snapped and got to her feet. She started to head for the kitchen to put the kettle on and then changed her mind and headed for the garden. Her daughter placed her sleeping baby into a bouncy seat with care, strapped it in and then followed her mum outside.
‘I thought you wanted to go home?’ Nora said, her voice sharp.
‘But the photos?’
‘Damn the photos,’ Nora said
She pushed past her daughter almost knocking her to her feet, grabbed her bag but not her coat and headed for the door. Nora delighted in a hard slam and a mournful cry of a baby disturbed from a restful sleep. She was already in the car when her daughter opened the front door, she drove off before Janice stepped onto the drive. When Nora clipped the curb she slowed down and pulled into a space outside a chip shop. She thought about how sad and lonely late night take always looked in the morning and waited for this latest bout of fury to subside.
She didn’t know her mother had a sister. Fancy being named after someone you never knew existed. That bloody Annette and her questions, it was because of her that she realised she didn’t even have the most basic information about her mother, like her date of birth or if she’d been an only child. All she knew was her mother was committed to St James in 1949, just after she’d been born. Her mother had tried to drown herself and her baby. Nora pulled her brown leather handbag onto her lap, and pulled out a makeup case which had never so much had held a lipstick. Inside the black flowery case was a newspaper cutting about a woman who had tried to drown herself on Southsea beach and a couple of photos Annette had emailed.
Even as a child she’d always hated it when strangers had known more about her life than she did, but she’d never had the urge to dig up the past. Not like some of the other pitiful foster kids who made up elaborate stories about why they had been dumped in the bin like yesterday’s newspaper. Why should she care about her mother and aunt? Who wanted to admit that her mother had lived and died in a mad house? Her mother-in-law had never let her forget it for a minute when she found out. She was also so careful to point out that no one had mental health problem on their side of the family. Bad eyesight and diabetes were an acceptable birth defect.
Nora pulled out a couple of clean but crumpled tissues and wiped her eyes and then her nose. Next she pulled down the mirror and reapplied her lipstick and gave her reflection the biggest smile she could muster. What was that Beatles song about keeping smiles in a jar? It was just a matter of pushing all those nasty unpleasant feelings deep down inside. After all she’d had nearly seventy years of practice. She was strong.
Her blue eyes looked back at her, and sent the silent message that she’d carried from childhood. What was wrong with her? Why did her mother want to kill her? What did she do wrong?
In the fifties the idea that a man, a merchant sailor at that, could raise a daughter alone was ridiculous, so like lots of displaced kids just after a war, she’d spent her childhood going from one foster home to another in the bombed out town of Portsmouth. At first her father had sent birthday and Christmas cards. She remembered a visit when he came with a tall doll, bags of nuts and tales of voyages to Italy. He had told her that her mum was okay until she had the baby, ‘one look and she went funny in the head.’ She couldn’t remember if she was nine or ten when he decided to stay in Singapore, start a new family and then two or three years after that the cards stopped.
It had been her that had caused her mother to lose her mind. The only person she’d confessed that to was her husband Joe, but he said that she should be in the nut house too if she had thoughts like that. So she never spoke about it again. It was bad enough that he joked that she was cracked every time she lost the keys. Or his warnings that she’d end up like her mother if she watched the soaps or Strictly. Rubbish television weakens the mind, he’d warn.
If her mum had a sister, why didn’t her aunt take her? Why wasn’t she raised by her mum’s family? Nora wondered. The answer was obvious. They blamed her. They knew what she’d always know, that her mother trying to end her own life and ending up in that hospital was all her fault.
The mask cracked, she couldn’t find that smile.
She needed to count her blessings, isn’t that what you were supposed to do when you felt sad, just count your blessings, tell yourself how lucky you are, remind yourself that there are others who have it so much worse. She dug into the brown bag, got out the shopping list pad and tried. She tried to write about good health, two grown up daughters, she tried to write about her loving home, Joe. Instead she scribbled, never having a new dress, and make do and mend being the excuse, even though flesh and blood kids in the household were dressed well, getting a bar of chocolate and a brush and comb set at Christmas, and crying that it wasn’t a bike, practising head stands in the school yard, school plays and pretending you weren’t bothered by mums in the audience.
For the last forty years Nora avoided even driving past Portsmouth Asylum or Saint James as they liked to call it now, but now she felt drawn to go there. A small part of her mind told her she was making a mistake, she just had to push the feeling down. She’d done it before, no one would have guessed how wretched she felt during the menopause.
She parked and was surprised by how pretty the building was with its red brick and Plymouth stone, how nice it was to walk to a Victorian building via the tree lined drive. In a way she felt this was the right place for her, all those years perhaps she was just pretending to be sane and really she was quite mad. It couldn’t be normal to feel this sad and this angry at the same time? And Nora was tired, tired of going to bed early and waking up exhausted from the she weight of pretending to be okay.
The restaurant inside the hospital was a surprise, she didn’t know why. After all, you can buy a Costa coffee at QA and some hospitals had small gifts shops. Why shouldn’t a mental hospital have a café? A tiny voice whispered that it was probably unsafe to sit next to mad people. She bought a coffee and wondered what life was like for her mother. After sitting and watching her coffee go cold, she approached the photographs of starched nurses standing next to beds. With a wave of guilt Nora realised she’d only ever considered how her mother’s illness affected her. She never thought about what her mother’s life was like.
What would her own daughters do when they found out that she was weak? Would they be ashamed or pleased that she’d finally be the one who couldn’t make the grade? When the restaurant started to fill up, the sound of chatter stung Nora’s skin as if someone was throwing broken glass at her bare arms. She needed to leave this building, but she couldn’t go home. A small voice suggested the sea, but thought of what she might do there frightened Nora.
An art display at Portsmouth Museum. The parking is free in the grounds, and there is a café and the name Edward King rings a bell. It is somewhere to go away from dark thoughts and deep salted water.
Nora worried that she didn’t even remember driving to the second pretty Victorian building of the day. She hesitated. Is it mad to go and see an art display when she doesn’t even paint? What if the staff of the museum can tell that the power to control her mind is drifting away?
The lady in the shop asked her twice to write down her car registration number. She only half listened to her talk about the free parking. Nora nodded, smiled and resisted the urge to run out of the building and away from looks and questions. When she entered the display she remembered why the name Edward King had nestled into her long term memory. He was in St James too.
Nora was struck by the bizarre coincidence that earlier today she was remembering her childhood and now she is confronted with burnt bricks and familiar streets. She hadn’t realised how much the city had changed. He painted the city, my city, she thought as she froze in front of a picture of the roofless Connaught Drill Hall on Stanhope Road. Look at the damage, but they fixed it, they put it all right, made it all better, I shouldn’t be feeling so…so…broken.
Did he and my mother meet at the social events they had for the patients at the hospital? Did I pass this man and his nurse on my way to school? How could someone who was mad still manage to produce such art work? Nora wondered.
Somewhere in her mind she created a room which her mother lived in, rather like the images of mental facilities on television. Her mother would have slept in a cot bed with straps to hold her down. The door would be made of metal with a glass panel for the nurses to look through. She’d created a room like in her mind for all the feelings she had towards her mother. Nora felt like she was drowning in her own sadness. It was so unfair that the door had finally broken open at her age.
She read the captions inside the exhibition. The patients weren’t locked in the rooms, they went out, gardened, worked in the hospital as part of their treatment. Some of them would have had family visiting them. Nora didn’t visit her mother, it was hard enough when she got married at twenty one to admit her mother was in the asylum. If truth be known she cringed when her daughters shared posts about ‘talking about depression’ on Facebook.
Why did she want to meet and talk to her mother now? Why did she want to find out who the Aunty Nora was and why she was named after her?
She sat opposite a picture of a building that was once strong until a bomb had blown the roof right off it. She couldn’t remember if they’d fixed it or knocked the hall down.
She looked up to see both her daughters. No, she was imagining it, Alice and Janice couldn’t be here. And Joe was behind them. So this is it, Nora thought, it’s true, like mother like daughter, I should have gone to the sea.
‘Mum, are you okay?’ Alice asked. She was still wearing her name tag from the bank.
‘You can’t be here, you can’t have found me?’ Nora said.
With a practiced swing Janice swept the pram into a circle so she could sit opposite. ‘Mum we used the ‘track your lost phone app’ it wasn’t hard.’
Nora dug into her bag and pulled out the thin black mobile. Twenty three messages, and fourteen voice mail messages. When Joe cleared his throat and asked her daughters if she was okay, Nora almost laughed.
‘I don’t think I will ever be alright again,’ she admitted.
One of her daughters squeezed her hand the tears flowed, dripped off her chin. She tried to tell them about not getting an orange for Christmas when the real children of the family did, she wanted to explain about her mum trying to drown her in the sea, and this bloody second cousin and her research updates, and how if she could just push the feeling down, if she could…
‘Just tell yourself to shake it off, pull yourself out of it, carrying on and not be so pathetic,’ Alice finished.
Nora gripped the tissue tightly in her fist, she shook her head. ‘You can’t know about that?’
Her daughter slipped her coat off and looked at her sister who gave her a brief hug. ‘Yes I can. Last year I was depressed, I had to have a couple of weeks off work, and started some anti-depressants. It was rough, but I got through it. I’m feeling a lot better now, especially now I’m careful to exercise.’
‘No. I would have known. Why didn’t you tell me?’
Both her girls laugh. ‘Mum, you are not one to be sympathetic to something like depression. But that’s what I suspect is wrong, you need to get help, start with your GP.’
The tears started, Nora shook her head furiously, ‘So you think I’m mad like my mother.’
‘No one thinks that…’ her husband tried to comfort her but Nora snapped.
‘Oh no, that’s why I can’t watch Strictly, because I’ll end up in the madhouse like my mother.’
He stepped back at the force of her accusation, ‘Nora darling, you must know I was joking.’
And when she started to sob again, he pushed Janice out of the way so he could sit beside his wife and put his arm around her, ‘You had the short end of the straw, old girl, drifting from one home to another, and if I joked about it I was wrong. I never knew how to talk about those days. I didn’t like to ask in case it upset you. But old girl, you need to talk about it to someone, I don’t think holding all this hate about oranges inside is doing you any good.’
Nora tried to push him away, ‘It’s not about the bloody orange at Christmas or the dress, I need to find Nora, find Mum, and I left it too late. I …’
Nora struggled, but her husband pulled her closer.
‘We will help you find all the answers you need. We will help you. But you do need help. And you do need to talk about it,’ he said.
Nora struggled and then her body sagged onto her husband’s shoulder. Her family didn’t rush her, they didn’t tell her to stop crying or remind her that she was out in public and strangers were giving them curious glances while looking at the Edward King pictures. They waited for the tears to stop and then before they took her home, they promised they would help her find Nora.
© Charlotte Comley (2017)
Charlotte Comley is a writer, creative writing tutor and professional storyteller. Her fiction has been published by Ether Books, Darwin Evolutions, Flash Flood, Chuffed Books, Dagda Press and 1000 words. Her non-fiction work has appeared in magazines such as The Green Parent, Take a Break, Woman’s Weekly, The Motion Online, Words and Pictures and Grow It. She has written and published ten educational resources books.
My Nana use to look after a civil defence hall and described the building to me after it had been bombed. The painting stirred a memory, and I remember her struggle to stay strong after her husband left and views that mental health equals weakness.
I loved actually sitting and writing in the locations I used in my story.Charlotte Comley
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.