Excelsior Mental Hospital
A ward of the state.
Abi didn’t know what that meant. But that’s what she was; the fat lady wearing the blue dress with white buttons told her so.
“Mama?” Abi asked.
“She can’t look after you, you’re going to live here.”
“Oh, she’ll pick me up?”
“Look, child, this is your home now; you’re a ward of the state.”
“Oh,” Abi repeated, looking out the window. “A ward of the state.”
The fat woman frowned. “Not now. I need to finish your admission papers, then take you to the villa.”
Abi couldn’t remember her father, but she could remember him leaving. Mama cried. She cried a lot. Abi didn’t know why. She vaguely recalled a park. A sunny day. Yes, she was at a park. Seesaw was her favourite. Someone, an unseen force, was propping her up, holding her, keeping her safe. Was it her father? “Whee!”
“Mama?” she asked again, staring at the fat lady.
“I’m sorry, Abi, this is your home now. We’ll look after you.”
“My name is Mrs Stewart.”
Mrs Stewart shook her head, raised her voice. “No, quiet child.”
Abi closed her eyes, gently rocked.
The man from school told Mama that Abi was retarded, had special needs. He talked to Mama; Abi didn’t understand. Abi wanted to go to school. She wanted to play, be with other kids. The man behind the desk said no. Mama cried.
“Follow me,” Mrs Stewart commanded.
They walked along corridors filled with a funny smell, cream walls, wooden doors.
“Home?” Abi asked.
“Yes, this is your home; come, follow me.”
“Yes, now, I want to introduce you to your villa friends.”
“This bed is yours, Abi. Give your case to Sister; she will look after it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“No—mine. Mama gave it.”
“It’s alright,” said Sister. “I love the covering on your case. Golden clocks and lanterns! Did you do this with Mama?”
“Have you seen my clock? It’s not really a clock, though; it’s a watch.”
Sister pulled her stainless-steel fob away from her chest. It shined and sparkled in the setting sun.
Abi loved colours, shapes. They made her smile, feel good.
The corridor outside the sleeping dormitory suddenly filled with riotous voices, voices for eleven of the twelve lonely beds lined up in pairs.
“Quiet, children,” Mrs Stewart ordered with frightening volume, easily heard through the closed double doors.
Abi tingled then fell.
Mama took Abi to the doctors. “Fits,” the doctor said. “Nothing anyone can do.”
Abi was sent from the room. Mama stayed with the doctor. She came back crying. Mama cried a lot.
“She’s soiled herself,” Abi heard Sister say. “It’s all right, Abi; you’ve had a fit. It’s okay; but you must be tired; let’s clean you up and get you into bed.”
Abi woke. It was dark. Scared, she was relieved to feel teddy in her hands. He was resting on her chest. Mama always told her she was a wriggle monster, an octopus! But now she could hardly move at all. Crisp white starched sheets trapped her tight against a squeaky metal bed. She was hungry and thirsty. She screamed.
“Shush child,” a woman with a torch snarled. “You’ll wake everyone up.” Torchlight blazed into Abi’s eyes. She couldn’t see. It was so bright her eyes hurt. It wasn’t Mrs Stewart; it wasn’t Sister either. This woman smelt of stale wood.
“Mama,” Abi cried, “Mama.”
“Shut up, girl, be quiet now, or I’ll call for Mr Greig. You won’t want that.”
Abi tingled and woke up the next morning.
Abi missed Mama. School was not what she imagined. The classroom was either too hot or too cold. It was noisy, cramped, full of children she lived with. She missed time alone. Her new life was too loud, too busy. She hated it.
She remembered visiting a school with Mama. That school had a playground. Swings, a roundabout, jungle gym, and seesaw.
Her school had nothing. Playtime filled with walking, sitting, squabbling, then being told off.
Sleep came easily after tears, wondering whether Mama still cried too. Abi also wondered if her father had returned to Mama, whether he’d return to take her home.
It was a car. She was standing on the back seat, leaning forward, arms resting on the top of the front bench seat. Mama was in the front seat. A man was driving. Her father? She wasn’t sure. Mama was smiling. The man was laughing. They were going to the park.
She was on the seesaw, up and down, breeze in her face, in her hair. “Hold on tight,” the man said. Abi felt scared but smiled, then laughed. She felt alive. She was so high. The man behind her held her hips. She was free but safe. He slowly pushed her up, then slowed her on her way down. At the top of the arc, she could see a church, its steeple, a pointy red rocket flying alongside her in the big blue sky. The bumpy hills behind were green and brown, like the colours of the suitcase she and Mama had just covered with wallpaper. Her legs and feet flew, hung loose, then returned, feet planted firmly on the ground. She loved that.
Abi started to tingle again, although this time never woke.
The next morning Sister picked up Teddy, packed Abi’s tiny suitcase, sent it back to her mother.
Excelsior Office Park
The hands on the clock were tired. Like everything else, they were on a Friday afternoon go-slow, begrudgingly dragging themselves toward knock-off and the weekend. I’m a weekend guy, a weekend Dad, actually. It’s a crushing existence. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paige to bits. I can’t imagine life without her. It’s just I never spend enough time with her. My ex-Kaylee thinks I get the best of it. Do all the fun things, play no part in the tedious day-to-day grind. But I’d swap roles in a heartbeat; she knows that. I just want a deeper relationship with my daughter.
Kaylee has a new man. So, Paige has two dads now. That hurts like hell. He spends more time with Paige than I do. Kaylee tells me there’s no chance of reconciliation, so dreams of marriage, mortgage, and three kids have been cut off at the knees.
Billie, my colleague, interrupted my thoughts.
“What are you doing on the weekend, Boycee?”
“Not much; I’ll finish the Findlay file. There are no fairs or events this weekend, so I’ll just hang out with Paige, take her to the park, treat her to an ice cream.”
“Nice, she’ll love that!”
“Nah, it’s pretty boring.”
“Boring for you, maybe, but not for her,” Billie smiled. “Kids love the park, and she’ll love time with Dad.”
“Back in the day; this building was one of the old accommodation villas of the mental hospital,” she said. “My Nan told me that they never had a playground for the kids.”
“Yeah, nah, nearly a hundred kids, not a single slide between them! Nan was a nurse here. She said the staff did what they could, but keeping the kids stimulated and happy was hard. They just used to wander aimlessly about the campus, in and out of the school house and their dorms.”
“I bet—poor little buggers.”
“So, never underestimate the value of play and parks, and whatever you do this weekend, Boycee, have a good one. I’m off now. See you Monday.”
“Okay, take care, have a good one too!”
“Oh, and say hi to Paige for me.”
“Will do,” I called back.
Thirty minutes later, I was on my way as well.
“Damn,” I cursed after starting my car. I’d forgotten the Findlay file.
Skipping out of the car, I unlocked the office door, left it open, disabled the alarm. Rushing along the corridor, I felt a tingle, a slight brush of cold air pushing past me toward the door. Weird, I thought. I grabbed the Findlay file then locked up again. After starting the car, I couldn’t help feeling there was someone sitting in the back seat. I checked the mirror, nothing…weird.
Popcorn and Disney, my Friday evening new normal. Princesses, then homemade pizza. Paige was in bed by eight and, after a story, was asleep twenty minutes later. I worked on the Findlay file, once again sensing I wasn’t alone.
A few hours later, I raided the fridge. Cracked open my first Friday beer. Cold beer and leftover pizza, who needs caviar? I leant against the island separating the kitchen from the lounge. I flicked the TV on, Ridiculousness living up to its title. I was soon laughing loudly. Then suddenly, I felt a twinge in my left hip. A muscle spasm? My left leg lurched forward slightly like it had been gently pushed. I straightened, stood up tall. My hip tingled. Weird, I thought.
Takeaway coffee in hand, lolly cake in a paper bag, we were at the park by eleven the next morning. Paige immediately ran off, going to play on a wooden platform with a boy about her age. I sat on a bench alongside a woman who was with a child in a wheelchair.
“Morning,” she said.
“Is that your girl?” she asked.
“Yep, she loves it here. Is that your boy?”
“Yes, and this is his sister Rosie. She gets terribly jealous of him. You want to play as well, darling, don’t you?”
I looked over. Smiled. “Hi, Rosie.”
Rosie’s head thrashed from side to side. Mouth open, white spittle collecting in its corners, eyes focussing on the moving horizon. She squealed. I didn’t know if she was happy or in pain. She raised her hands toward me, reaching as if to grab something.
“She likes you,” the woman said, “likes the buttons on your jacket. Rosie loves shapes and colours, don’t you?”
I wasn’t sure what to say or do, so I just smiled.
I watched Paige and her new friend play chase. Running through tunnels, jumping down levels, balancing on a thick wire, scuttling across to the next section. Then climbing up another. They were grinning ear to ear, squealing like tickled pigs.
“This playground is not much fun for Rosie,” I volunteered.
It fell on deaf ears. I turned; the woman was crying.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset.”
“You didn’t,” she answered. “It’s just hard. Rosie doesn’t need much. Just something to touch, different textures, bright colours, different shapes. Some sounds—maybe press a button, hear a cow sort of thing, I dunno,” she spluttered, trying to smile. “It’s pretty easy, really, when you think about it. Every kid has a right to play.”
“Daddy, Daddy, I want to go on the seesaw,” Paige yelled.
“I better go,” I said, “Sorry,” knowing sorry was never going to cut it.
“It’s okay, I understand.”
I walked ten metres, stopped, then turned. “If you want, I could hold and support Rosie on the seesaw.”
The woman smiled. “That’s really kind, but she has no core strength; she would flop about like an octopus. But thank you so much; we’re happy to watch.”
“C’mon, Daddy,” Paige called, already seated on one end of the beam. “C’mon.”
I jogged over, reached up, slowly pulled the opposite end of the beam down.
I dragged the beam to the ground then felt my arms tingle. An unseen force was pushing my arms back. Incredibly, the beam started to slowly rise on its own, as if an invisible child was sitting on the seat at my end. Weird.
Not wanting to alarm Paige, I returned my hands to the back of the seat, but the seesaw continued self-perpetuating up and down.
We left the park ninety minutes later. Rosie, her brother, and mum had gone. I hoped I would see them next week. There was a whisper in the wind, a giggle in the trees, and I couldn’t help feeling I’d left something behind.