Pt I: Orogenesis (Ch. 4)
I didn’t like the Surrey asylum. It was big and old and made noises like it was haunted. The ward had huge windows and grey walls and I could hear screams and moans coming from rooms down the corridor. Women wandered the halls looking sad and mental. Sister said I was born at the asylum. Mum said Sister was a troublemaker.
‘You were born at the hospital,’ Mum said. ‘The normal one.’
We were on our way to the asylum again. We went all the time when I wasn’t in nursery. As soon as Whoa left for school, we were off, walking right across Dorking.
‘Sister says I kept getting naked,’ I said.
‘Pay no attention to Sister,’ Mum said. ‘She’s mental.’
‘Is that why she’s at the asylum?’
‘She runs the asylum,’ Mum said.
But I had to pay attention to Sister. When Mum was taken by the doctor I stayed with Sister, who showed off her big boobs like a nurse from Carry On. She had an accent from the north that I could hardly understand. It didn’t stop her talking non-stop though. She gave me a milky drink because I was skinny.
‘You look like a Biafran,’ she said.
Sister said it was chocolate—but it didn’t taste like chocolate. It tasted like Weetabix without sugar.
‘You were born here,’ she said, again. ‘I was on duty. You came out with a full afro. Your Mum wouldn’t believe you were hers.’
I’d heard it before. Maybe ten times. I sat behind her on a hard chair and I would have swung my legs but I wasn’t allowed.
‘You kept wriggling out of your blankets,’ Sister said. ‘Your nappy too—butt naked you were. Three times. Your poor Mum. She wasn’t impressed.’
A doctor came in and picked up a file from Sister’s desk. He winked at me and told me to wipe the chocolate milk from my cheeks. I almost told him it wasn’t chocolate milk. The doctor winked at Sister. His floppy hair looked like a mop. He wore jeans and trainers and a T-shirt with a picture of a man with a guitar and an afro bigger than mine. Maybe he wasn’t a doctor at all.
‘Do you know your birth song?’ Sister said. I shook my head. She didn’t see because she was facing the other way. ‘Your birth song is whatever was Top of the Pops the week you were born. Do you know what yours was?’
I shook my head again.
‘Amazing Grace,’ she said. She turned around and smiled. Sister was pretty when she smiled. She was pretty when she didn’t smile. ‘Pipe and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard. Can you believe it?’
I could believe it. She’d told me before.
Sister’s chest was white and creamy like a Milkybar. Her red hair was done up in pins and the back of her neck was furry.
‘You know what that means?’ she said.
I didn’t know what it meant. I had an idea though. I’d heard the next bit before as well.
‘Do you think Amazing Grace is ever Top of the Pops? Never. It means you’ll have a blessed life.’ She said ‘blessed’ in a funny way. Like ‘bless’ and ‘ed’, together.
There was a cassette player on Sister’s desk. Sister rummaged around some loose tapes in the bottom of her desk drawer and held one up for me to see.
‘This isn’t the Pipe and Drums,’ she said. ‘But it is Amazing Grace. Oh, you know what, it isn’t. Ha. Never mind.’
Sister played something else instead. She turned to face me while the music blared behind her.
‘John Newton was a great man,’ she said. She had to speak up because of the song. ‘He was a slave trader. Do you know what a slave trader was?’
‘He worked on a ship that took slaves from Africa to America. Black people. It wasn’t right, what he did. But he didn’t know better.’
Sister looked past me at the wall. I looked behind me but there was nothing there.
‘There was a shipwreck,’ she said. ‘John Newton was stranded on an island. That’s where it all became clear. God had saved him for a purpose. Him, a slave trader. He wrote Amazing Grace and it ended slavery.’
‘Wilberforce did that,’ I said.
‘Uncle Bob said Wilberforce did it. Samuel fell off a horse and broke his neck. It was near our cottage.’
Sister didn’t know about any of that.
I heard Mum cry out from one of the rooms down the corridor. I was up and out the door before Sister even knew something was wrong. There was another cry and I ran towards it, down the hall and past the sad, mental women. I ran around some stairs and towards a double door that suddenly swung open as a man and woman in hospital outfits walked out and grabbed me without even asking what I was doing. I thrashed and shouted. I caught the man in the eye with my fist and he pinned my arms back as the woman stepped out of reach. Then Sister was there. She took me back to her room and sat me down on the hard chair. She gave me a Double Lolly to shut me up.
‘Your Mum isn’t well,’ Sister said. ’She’s here to get better.’
‘What’s wrong with Mum?’ I said. I sucked on my lolly. Double Lollies were my favourite.
‘Women’s problems,’ said Sister. ‘Because you were born. So you have to behave. Be good for Mum. Let her get better.’
On the way home, I asked Mum about her women’s problems.
’Never mind,’ she said. ‘How do you know about women’s problems?’
‘I told you. She’s mental.’
‘I’ve got a birth song,’ I said.
‘What song, or what is it?’
‘What is it?’
’When I was born it was Top of the Pops.’
‘Deep Purple,’ said Mum.
‘Yes it was.’
’Sister tell you that?’
‘Mental. Ask your Dad. Deep Purple—Machine Head. He’s got the record.’
Sister had given me a second Double Lolly as we left. I sucked it as me and Mum walked up South Street. Mum had to go to the chemist for tablets. She walked slowly and looked like the sad and mental women in the asylum.
‘What’s grace?’ I said.
‘No idea,’ said Mum. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s amazing,’ I said.
‘Is it? Well, you know more than me.’
I knew she wouldn’t know what it was. Even before I asked.