HomeThe day was bright, the blue air shimmering with freshets of wind. As we progressed sedately southwards along the Lough, Freddie looked out with lively interest at the scenery. Every so often, a doggy shiver of excitement would make his knees knock. What can he have been anticipating? My mind kept touching the thought of the prospect before him and flinching away from it like a snail from salt. In the back seat Hettie was muttering under her breath and heaving little sighs. It struck me that soon I might well be travelling this road again, with her beside me this time, and her things in a bag in the boot, on the way to another betrayal dressed up as necessity. I saw my father's face before me, half-smiling in his tentative, quizzical way, and then turning sadly aside, and fading.
The Nursing Home, as it was misleadingly referred to, was big and square, made of dark brick, standing in a dispiritingly well-tended garden in a sombre cul-de-sac off the Malone Road. As we turned in at the gate Freddie leaned close to the windscreen to look up at the stern frontage of the place, and I thought I detected in him the first tremor of unease. He turned to me with an enquiring smile.
"This is where you're going to live now, Freddie," I said. He nodded vehemently, making gagging noises. It was always impossible to know how much he might understand of what was being said to him. "But only if you like it," I added, cravenly.
In the vestibule were cracked tiles, brown shadows, a big clay pot of dried-out geraniums; there we were greeted by a sort of nun, or lay sister, in a grey wool outfit and a complicated wimple, something like a bee-keeper's headdress, in which her small sharp beaky face, the face of a baby owl, was rigidly framed. Freddie did not like the look of her at all, and balked, and I had to take him by one quivering arm and press him forward. I was by now in a state of truculent ill-temper. This is, I have noticed, a common response in me when there is something unpleasant to be done. Freddie in particular always provoked my ire. Even when we were children, and he used to stumble along beside me in the mornings to Miss Molyneaux's infant school, I would have worked myself into such a rage by the time we got there that I would hardly notice the other children gloating at the spectacle of the rector's snooty son hustling his imbecile brother into the classroom by the scruff of his neck.
The Sister led us down a hallway, up a sombre staircase, along a green-painted corridor with a window at the far end through the frosted panes of which the sun shone whitely, the light of another world. Hettie and the Sister seemed to know each other --- Hettie in her heyday had been on countless boards of visitors of institutions such as this --- and they walked ahead of Freddie and me, talking about the weather, the Sister brisk and faintly contemptuous, Hettie at once vague and frantic, tottering in her unaccustomed outdoor shoes. Halfway down the corridor we stopped, and while I waited politely as the Sister searched importantly among the keys on a big metal ring attached to her belt, another self inside me yearned toward that window with its milky effulgence, that seemed the very promise of escape and freedom.
"And this," said the Sister, hauling open a dirty-cream door, "this will be Frankie's room."
Metal cot with folded blanket, a rudimentary chair; on the blank white wall a framed daguerreotype of a frock-coated worthy with mutton-chop whiskers. I noted the wire mesh outside the window, the Bakelite bowl and pitcher on the washstand, the metal loops along the frame of the cot where restraining bands could be attached. Freddie stepped forward tentatively, clutching the suitcase before him in both arms and peering about him in apprehensive wonder. I looked at the back of his head, the delicate, unblemished neck, the pink ears and the little whorl of hair at the crown, and had to close my eyes for a moment. He was quite quiet. He looked back at me over his shoulder and smiled, his tongue lolling out briefly and then popping back in. This was his being-good mode; he knew something large was expected of him. Behind me Hettie sighed in unfocussed distress.
"He'll be grand, here," the Sister said. "We'll take the best of care of him."
Hettie, wandering lost somewhere inside herself, stared at the woman in wild-eyed incomprehension. Freddie sat on the bed and began to bounce up and down happily, still clutching the suitcase to him as if it were a big, awkward baby. The bedsprings jangled angrily. The Sister went forward and touched him on the shoulder, not without kindness, and immediately he was still, and sat gazing up at her meekly; smiling his slow-blinking smile, his blood-pink lower lip hanging loose.
"Come along with me now," she shouted at him cheerily, "and we'll show you the rest of the house."
Then it was the corridor again, with its smudged thumbprint of white light at the window end, and as we went toward the stairs the Sister came close to me and murmured, "The poor chap, has he no words at all?"
At the foot of the stairs our little party --- the Sister and me, with Hettie behind us, and Freddie, unburdened of his suitcase now, trotting at her heels and holding on to the sleeve of her coat with a finger and thumb --- turned towards the interior of the house, from whence there began to come to us a noise, a muffled tumult, as of many large children at boisterous and unruly play. We stopped at a broad set of double doors from behind which the hubbub was emanating, and the Sister, pausing for effect, looked at us over her shoulder with a tight-lipped little smile, her eyes fairly sparkling, as if she were about to give us a wonderful treat, and whispered: "This is what we call the Common Room."
She threw open the doors on a scene that was bizarre and at the same time eerily, though inexplicably, familiar. What struck me first was the sunlight, great pale meshes of it falling down from a long row of tall, many-paned arched windows that seemed, although we were on the ground floor, to give on to nothing but an empty expanse of white, strangely shining sky. The floor was of bare wood, which intensified the uproar, adding a deep drum-rolling effect. The people in the room were of all ages, men and women, girls, youths, but in the first moment, by some trick of expectation, I suppose, to me they all seemed to be youngish men, all of Freddie's age, with the same big hands and straw-coloured hair and agonisedly blithe, vacant smiles. They were dressed in white smocks (like doctors!) and wore no shoes, only thick woolen socks. They milled about in an oddly arbitrary, disarranged way, as if just a moment before our entrance something had fallen into their midst and scattered them like ninepins out of strictly ordered ranks. The noise was that of a menagerie. We stood in the doorway, staring, ignored by all save one or two of the distracted souls who peered at us suspiciously as if convinced we were no more than uncommonly solid-looking specimens of the usual daytime apparitions.
Freddie was silent, his eyes wide, glazed with awe and a kind of manic delight --- so many, and so mad! The Sister beamed at us, her plump, mottled little hands clasped under her breast; she might have been a mother showing off with rueful pride her numerous and happily undisciplined progeny.
But why did it all seem so familiar? What was it in the scene that made me think I had been here before --- or, more accurately, what was it made me think that I, or some essential part of me, had always been here? The room looked like nothing so much as the inside of my own head; bone white, lit by a mad radiance, and thronged with lost and aimlessly wandering figures who might be the myriad rejected versions of my self, of my soul.
A small man approached me, cherubic, pinkly bald, with baby-blue eyes and tufts of wooly grey curls above his ears, conspiratorially smiling, one eyebrow roguishly arched, and took me delicately by the lapel and said: "I'm here for safe keeping, you know. Everyone is afraid."
The Sister stepped forward and lowered an arm between us like a level-crossing gate. "Now now, Mr. McMurty," she said with grim good humour, "none of that, thank you very much."
Mr. McMurty smiled again at me, and with a regretful shrug stepped backward into the milling throng. I would not have been surprised to see sprouting from his back a pair of miniature golden wings.
"Come along now, Frankie," the Sister was saying to Freddie, "come along and we'll get you settled in."
He leaned toward her docilely, but then, as if he had bethought himself, he gave a violent start and shied away from her, goggling, and shaking his head, and making a choking noise at the back of his throat. He clutched at me, sinking his shockingly strong fingers into my arm. He had realised at last what was happening, that this was no treat laid on for him, a sort of pantomine, or an anarchic verion of the circus, but that here was where he was to be abandoned, the bold corner where, for misdemeanours he could not recall committing, he was to be made to stand for the rest of his life. That blustering anger boiled up inside me all the stronger, and I felt violently sorry for myself, and cruelly wronged. Hettie then, to the surprise of all, gave herself a sort of rattly shake, like one waking with an effort from a drugged sleep, and without a word took Freddie firmly by the hand and led him back along the hall and up the stairs to his room. I followed, and loitered in the corridor, watching through the half-open door as she and the Sister busied themselves unpacking Freddie's bag and putting his things away.
Freddie wandered about the room for a while, crooning to himself, then stopped at the bed and sat down, holding his back very straight, and with his knees together and his hands placed flat on the mattress at his sides. And then, having settled himself, the good boy once more, he lifted his eyes and looked at me where I stood cowering in the doorway, and smiled his most ingenuous, most beatific, smile, and seemed --- surely I imagined it? --- seemed to nod, once, as if to say, Yes, yes, don't worry, I understand.--- From The Untouchable
By John Banville
©1997 Picador (Macmillan)