by Joan Huggins
The massive structures loomed before her, surrounded by the thick brick walls she remembered so well. The place had been closed for many years now, but she had to see it one last time. Jessie stopped the car in front of the large black iron gates and got out, wrapping her coat tightly around her body. It was a bitter cold day, the kind of cold that makes your bones ache and your back hunch over, something not unusual for mid February in Northern England.
Leaving the car, she walked slowly toward the ill-fated Victorian buildings standing bold and unyielding before her. Surrounded by clusters of majestic oak trees, the rooks and crows squawked shrill warnings to each other as she approached. The entire complex, including the four large patient buildings; the church; railway station; post office and brewery, were now but mere shells of what they used to be. It’s all too sad. She thought. It’s been here since the 1800’s, and now to be demolished for a damned housing development.
A little white van with black lettering on the side was parked toward the back of the driveway. The same white van she’d seen as a child, transporting men and women strapped in dirty white jackets and sleeves belted securely around them with more straps and buckles than she’d ever cared to count. Some arrived quietly, some struggled and screamed, but all were quickly shepherded through a side door Jessie had never entered. She focused on the van again, strangely fascinated by the chipped and peeling paint and the dark tinted windows. And there, located on the side front door she grimaced as she recognized the name in big bold letters. ‘WHITTINGHAM.’ Just the one word, but everyone who saw it knew what and where Whittingham was.
The visitor’s building, where she used to come every Saturday from 11:00 to 3:00, was still standing, but with no hospitable characteristics to be seen any more, not even in the once beautiful grounds it now unquestionably dominated. The front door opened easily and stepping inside, she found herself once more pulled into that eccentric but familiar world of not so long ago. And regardless of the rotting ceilings, the cracked and peeling paint, the stripped and dirty floors, she was happy to be back to the place once known as ‘Whittington Lunatic Asylum. She still had fond memories of most of the people she’d met there years ago. New people, young and old would turn up every week, and she always wondered where they came from. Some stayed for just a short time. Others stayed till the end of their days, and her aunt Elsie was one of those people.
Outsiders labeled Elsie as ‘insane’, a ‘nutter’, but they didn’t know her or her story. They didn’t know that as a child she had Epilepsy, that’s all, and her seizures were misdiagnosed as a form of madness. The doctors placed her in Whittingham even as a young girl, but in spite of their treatments and procedures, the seizures continued and they reluctantly released her back to Gran. She eventually married, only to end up beaten and mistreated, but never saying a word to anyone for fear they would commit her back to the asylum again. In due course, her husband, wanting to be rid of her for good, set fire to the house while she slept, locked the doors and left.
She survived, but not without damage. Damaged physically and psychologically she was placed back in Whittingham until she recovered, but never did. Her scarred and fragile mind could no longer trust again, and while the confines of the asylum became her refuge, the scars on the outside of her body would serve as a reminder that the outside world would never be safe.
So if Elsie wouldn’t go to the outside world, the outside world went to her. Every Saturday, from 11 to 3, Jessie rode the bus with her Gran to visit her aunt at the asylum. She did it for eight years, missing only if she were ill. It was a part of her life, which she enjoyed, one because she loved her aunt, and two because it was like Christmas every week. Elsie had many friends, all of whom adored Jessie and looked forward to her visits as if she were there to see them too. They spent much of their weekly allowances on sweets and toys just for her to take home.
As weeks turned into years, and during the course of Jessie’s visits, the name of the asylum was changed from Whittingham Lunatic Asylum; to Whittingham Asylum; and ultimately to Whittingham Hospital. Public outcries to humanize mental facilities and their patients were getting louder, and so changes were being made, for better and for worse. Whittingham was headlined as the “Horror Hospital” for a short time and inspections became extensive. They eventually weeded out the bad, and life at the asylum/hospital returned to normal. Elsie assured Jessie and Gran that everything was fine, that she knew nothing of anyone being abused or mistreated.
And so, the news of her death surprised everyone. She hadn’t been sick, and at fifty-six years of age, she was still nimble and sure-footed. Her death certificate claimed the cause to be a Cerebrovascular Accident, a stroke, and Jessie had to accept that, in spite of the crudely scribbled death certificate. And of course, along with any death comes guilt, and she had to accept that too. Constantly questioning. Had she done enough? Given enough? Loved enough? She would never know.
And now, standing in the abandoned visitors room twelve years later, Jessie, overwhelmed by the scents of her aunt again, couldn’t help but imagine that a little bit of aunt Elsie’s spirit had finally escaped the blackened walls of Whittingham, landing safely in the outside world. And as she looked around at the mess and destruction, and thought about the probability of terrible acts of indecency taking place to some who were there, she couldn’t help but feel sad. Because, whether it was now called asylum or hospital, the immense structures of the Whittingham community were not a horror to everyone who resided there. There were some who considered it their sanctuary.
The room was getting dark, and the sun was going down, reminding Jessie that she needed to leave. For although she felt a connection to this once impressive structure, there were many unanswered questions she really didn’t want to know the answers to any more. She felt her aunt had been happy here, and that’s what she wanted to remember. She took one last look, as she climbed back into her car. No need to say goodbye, because the memories of the asylum would live with her forever.
She stopped at the care center on her way home. Time had taken its toll on Gran, and she was growing weary. Her mind was failing and her memories were stored in a place no longer known to her. After outliving all of her children, she felt she was ready to go, but the thought of losing her was painful to Jessie. Gran was the closest thing to a mother she’d ever had. Her own mother had died when she was three years old her relatives told her, and she never knew her father. Gran raised her as her own, in spite of losing a daughter to death and one to the confines of her mind. Oh Jessie missed her aunt terribly and often longed to be with her again, but she always wished she’d known her mother as well.
“She’s seems lucid today.” The nurse told her as she came to Gran’s room. “We’ve been chatting all day.”
Jessie felt excited; she’d be able to tell Gran about her visit to the asylum after all.
“I went to see Whittingham, our old weekend hangout today.” Jessie said. “Of course it’s closed now and pretty run down.” She decided not to tell her that the county was going to tear the place down.
Gran smiled. “But Elsie isn’t there any more.”
“I know. She’s in an even better place now.” Jessie laughed. “Running around with Mum I’m sure.”
“Yes Gran.” She said. “You remember mum don’t you?”
Gran smiled again but said nothing.
“I wish I remembered her.” Jessie sighed. “I wish she could have known me. I wish she could have seen me grow up.”
Gran reached for Jessie’s hands. “She did.” She said. “Every Saturday from 11 to 3.”