Abi Wyatt

Voices of Sweet Reason

It is visiting time but there are, as usual, no visitors for Dorinda who has taken the precaution of hiding herself in one of the big winged chairs. The one she has selected looks out over the garden with its wintering and frost-bitten flowerbeds. Here and there a primrose shows, flowering against the odds. There has been a little sunshine, bright enough for a time but lacking in warmth and purpose; a pair of rooks and some sad-looking sparrows scratch and stab on the lawn.

Dorinda is hidden from the eyes of the curious by the folds of a heavy red curtain drawn against the winter chill and the last low rays of the sun. She has withdrawn here quite deliberately to avoid the awkward kindnesses of those who come visiting others. She hates it, for example, when well-meaning people insist on trying to ‘include’ her, drawing her into their family circle in as though they might actually care. Life might be difficult – and Dorinda is often very lonely – but she carries her pride like a coat of arms and wears it like a bullet-proof vest.

From inside her cocoon of wipe-clean, cream-colored, mock leatherette, Dorinda listens to the trundle and clunk that heralds the approach of the tea trolley. A selection of biscuits with Madeira and angel cake is their customary four o’clock fare. But, though, she has a fancy for a slither of shortbread, Dorinda is resolved to keep her silence. Her strategy is always to keep her head down and try to stay one step ahead.

The ward assistant this afternoon is the irrepressible Minnie whose broad smile and even broader accent grate on Dorinda’s fragile nerves. The worst thing about Minnie, though, is not her accent, nor even her vacuous grinning; it is not even her insufferable and relentless cheerfulness in the face of so much human despair. The trouble with Minnie is her constitutional inability to take no for an answer, her obstinate and utterly insensitive refusal just to leave people alone.

‘Right then, who’s for a nice cup of tea?’
Trundle, clunk, trundle.

‘Keeps out this perishin’ cold.’

The trolley squeaks to a halt.

‘There you go, Mr B. You’ll enjoy that, won’t you? Now how are we feeling? You get it down you while it’s hot. That’s the ticket, there you go. … Now, Mr B, what have you done to make old Mrs Skinner look so cheerful? … Go on, don’t you tell me – she’s been at the gin bottle again. All you people, I just don’t know, you’ve got the life of Riley, you have. I wish that I had nothing to do but sit on my arse and drink tea.’

Dorinda sits very still in her chair and all but holds her breath. She listens to the sound of the tea being poured and the rattle and clatter of the crockery, picks at the hem of her handkerchief, and waits for the crisis to pass.
‘Now then, where’s Miss Dorinda today? I haven’t seen her since lunch time. She’s a queer fish she is, a very queer fish indeed.’

Minnie’s question is altogether rhetorical because those of whom she asks it do not know the answer neither and do they care. Even if they did know, it is highly unlikely that either would be capable of answering: in the three weeks since his last admission, Mr B has spoken not a word. Mrs S, on the other hand, talks all the time, but her conversational value is limited. This is the very natural result of her having only one phrase to say: I saw him do it, I saw him do it, I saw him do it, I saw him.' Whatever it was that Mrs S saw, it didn’t do her much good.

‘Yes, she’s an odd one, that skinny Miss Dorinda.’ Minnie’s tone is thoughtful.
‘She likes to put on her airs and graces and make like she’s better than the rest. But she’s not as green as she’s cabbage-looking is what I would say about that one. What do you think, Mr B – a barrow-load of monkeys, eh? … Come on now, you lovely people, who wants a nice cup of tea?

Dorinda breathes a small, soft sigh and turns her attention to the window. The sky has clouded over now and the garden appears cheerless and grim. Catching sight of her reflection in the big picture window, she is shocked by her shapeless appearance. What have they done with her cashmere sweaters and neatly tailored skirts?

‘She’s looking out of the window now. She’s looking at her reflection.’

Dorinda jerks her head right round to the left but, strangely, no-one is there.
‘She’s must be someone who’s silly and vain. She’s always looking in mirrors. Puts on airs and graces, she does. She’s not a good person at all.’

‘Shut up, Jackie, that’s not nice.' The scolding is barely audible. ‘You’re just repeating what Minnie just said – and you are supposed to be my friend.’
 
‘What do you mean ‘supposed to be your friend’? I am your friend. Of course, I am. Who is it that picks you up every time some little thing goes wrong? Who was it looked after you, too, the night you got into trouble? Who stayed awake till breakfast time and never got a wink sleep?’

Dorinda’s eyes darken and her neck shrinks into her shoulders. She is remembering something she would very much rather forget.

‘You did, Jackie. You did.,' she says. 'But that was before we came here. We’re safe here, aren’t we? Aren’t we safe and sound?’

The words come out of Dorinda’s mouth as not much more than a whimper. She knows that Jackie will hear her, though; Jackie always hears.

‘Don’t make such a fuss,’ Jackie snaps back tartly. ‘Don’t be such a drama queen. I’ll look after you. You’re safe here with me.’

‘But is she really safe and sound?’

This voice is deep and full-bodied, not at all like Jackie’s. Dorinda cocks her head to one side and her eyes fill with fear.

‘Keep calm,’ she whispers to herself. ‘Just try to breathe. Keep things simple. Keep things under control.’

She huddles up in the big winged chair, presses her fingers to her temples.

‘Is she really? Is she safe and sound? Is she? Is she? Is she?'

Dorinda wonders what she has happened. Why are things going wrong? Jackie is the one who looks after her so Jackie should have kept stopped him. Jackie must have turned on her, then, and let the stranger in.

‘Look, she’s getting all upset. She might even cry in a minute.’

‘She thought she was safe and sound. Now she’s not so sure.’

‘That’s taught her a thing or two then. Now she won’t be so full of herself. She’s not a very good person, you know, not a good person at all.’

Dorinda is crying so very, very hard she doesn’t hear the trundling of the trolley. She doesn’t hear it squeak to a stop or the sound of her name being called. It is only when someone takes hold of her hand that she understands Minnie has found here.
‘Miss Dorinda, she says,’ so there you are. What you need is a nice cup of tea.’

Then Dorinda takes her hand from her eyes. They are red and sore and swollen. She blinks through her misery at Minnie’s smiling concern.

‘Why can’t you leave me alone?’ she screams, and she launches her whole body at poor Minnie. It takes three people to pull her off. Minnie is seriously hurt.

Later, when the police have gone and Minnie is safely in hospital, a tall man with greying hair visits Dorinda in her room.
‘Dorinda’ he says, ‘you’ve let us all down. What on earth came over you?’

‘It was Minnie,’ she says. ‘She wouldn’t shut up and she wouldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t bear it any more. I just wanted to be left in peace.’

Abi Wyatt © 2011