By Barbara Goulden
Key Themes: schizophrenia, fiction
About the Author
Barbara Goulden has worked as a journalist on weekly and evening newspapers for most of the past 35 years.
She still remembers the sense of relief she felt after finally being given a name for the condition which was creating such mystifying and upsetting thought patterns in a close relative.
Even though the diagnosis of schizophrenia probably helped Barbara more than the relative who was actually doing battle with the illness, at least it was a starting point for gaining some understanding.
She went on to join the National Schizophrenia Fellowship – now Rethink – and became one of the founding members of the Coventry group.
Several things had changed at Peacehaven Mansions since the arson attack that nearly burned the place to the ground. Jane still told everyone the Beddows brothers, who lived on a housing estate up the road, had something to do with last summer’s fire. But few people took much notice of Jane’s suspicions. She’d suffered from schizophrenia for the past 25 years. Her other, more pressing conviction, was that she’d been wrongly diagnosed as mentally ill.
These days only the occasional slug slithered through the cat flap of her flat in the Victorian villa, converted for the care in the community of ex-psychiatric patients. Jane didn’t believe she needed to be in the care of anybody and would have preferred to live in a modern property that didn’t attract garden pests. At least the gruesome slugs appeared to be making themselves scarce, though Jane suspected it was only a seasonal absence. Her cat – an unwanted gift from Sandy – was still a finicky eater who liked to pick at his food, then come back to it later. The lingering smell sent out an open invitation to all slimy invaders crawling through the bug-infested grounds outside. Jane knew she should scrape the disgusting, uneaten offal, into the bin. But it was expensive to buy and she was always short of money for cigarettes.
Despite her original reluctance to take on the responsibility of looking after a pet, she’d grown fond of Mr C. As it turned out, the animal was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He already seemed to do everything short of opening his own cans of food. If she was in bed he’d simply go round and whine outside the door of one of her neighbours, in the once grand house which was down on its heels and in need of a fresh coat of paint.
Bit like me really, thought Jane, who at the age of 48, also felt in dire need of a makeover. Nobody could ever accuse her of not getting enough beauty sleep but the years of depression, hospital re-admissions, and chain-smoking had all taken their toll. Her skin was blotchy from spending too much time in front of the electric fire, and her thick, dark hair was regularly hacked with a pair of kitchen scissors because she was too impatient to wait for an appointment with a stylist. Even so, she was not an unattractive woman. Her hair was so naturally curly it usually managed to look less straggly after a week or two – and she was rarely seen in public without a pair of outrageously long, dangling earrings.
Jane did admit to hearing voices. But these told her she suffered from chronic heart disease. And the fixed delusion that she could die at any minute – that she deserved to die because of all the nicotine abuse she’d inflicted on her body over the years – had become a permanent fixture in her brain. And while it was true that this fierce belief in her imminent demise waxed and waned, it was always playing somewhere in the back of Jane’s mind, convincing her that there was no real point in trying to get another job, or get out of bed some mornings.
Strangely enough, since crazed arsonists had been left free to roam around outside, Jane’s personal inner turmoil had slightly subsided. Provided she kept busy, she seemed able to function most of the time.
Then there were the frequent visits from her beloved niece, Bella, which helped keep the voices at bay. At the age of 13, Bella was already an accomplished young musician. Last year she’d ended up spending nearly three weeks living at Peacehaven Mansions – completely against the regulations as it turned out – after Sandy and Roger were involved in a terrible car crash while on holiday in France.
During her stay Bella had got to know most of the other tenants, who she accepted with all their foibles. Throughout the anxious wait for news the child’s youthful optimism; her firm belief that her Mum would recover and everything would get back to normal, had become a talisman of hope in the house full of people with high-anxiety levels. Somehow alcoholic Ray, who’d had a flat at the back, and agoraphobic Renee, who lived upstairs, began to believe that if this lovely child continued to flourish, perhaps the world wasn’t quite the unfair and chaotic place it always seemed to them.
Jane felt the same way. While she was forever accusing four-years-younger sister Sandy of trying to patronise her, she had all the time in the world for her niece. As Bella’s school was only two bus stops away from Peacehaven Mansions, Jane was delighted when she got into the habit of turning up every Wednesday after lessons. Without having to have it spelled out, Bella understood that sometimes her Aunty would have cooked them both a meal, while at other times she would have spent the whole day asleep on the sofa.
It didn’t matter because Wednesday was the day Bella did food technology. She arrived on the doorstep like some beast of burden, guitar case in one hand, casserole dish in the other, plus some great rucksack full of books strapped to her back. If Jane had nothing in the fridge she knew her niece could be relied on to bring enough to feed herself. And sometimes half the other tenants.