The blog post that won’t go away is still bouncing around in my head; the Sunday newspapers today have further infuriated me – and after long talks with Mr G, I have made the decision to publish. It is going to be a painful experience for me, one that will take several days to complete, so be patient with me. You’ll get an installment each day – the ‘Perils of Pauline’ Mark II. It may be that the reason for publishing won’t be clear until I have finished the tale. That could be Friday! Who knows?
Pour yourself a double on the house, and sit quietly.
I did once write on this site of how I attempted suicide when I was 13, a few months before the Suicide Act made that desperate act ‘legal’. Until that change in the law, you were either ‘mad or bad’. I ended the story with me being incarcerated in a fearful Victorian asylum in Epsom on the grounds that no one wanted to believe that I was ‘bad’. It was horrific, and I have thought many times over the years of writing of what happened to me as a child, but I truly loathe the ‘victim culture’ and could never bring myself to do it. I will, today, try to fill in a few pertinent details.
There was no ‘children’s ward’. Such a thing didn’t exist in those days. So I found myself in the company of some very strange individuals indeed; many, many, years older than I. The only concession to my age was that I was given a single ‘room’, not allocated to the women’s dormitory. ‘Room’ is in parenthesis, for it bore more resemblance to a police cell – a heavy metal door, with an inspection hatch, which in fairness, was never locked, but foreboding all the same. Although that door was never locked, the door to the corridor that it was on was locked at night. Someone, somewhere, was presumably aware that it wasn’t a brilliant idea to leave a 13 year old girl sleeping and accessible to several dozen adult males – even if it was only done in the interests of getting a good nights kip on night duty.
It was about the only concession to the idea that having some 50 men and women with varying mental states sharing one ward was potentially problematic.
Once a week was bath-night. There were four huge baths, deep cast iron affairs, with the controls for the hot water firmly on the outside. The routine was that two baths were allocated to the women, and two to the men, and periodically the water would be changed – not between every patient though! There were procedures to go through before you reached the head of the queue. As the queue snaked the length of the ward, nurses would first collect – or more generally ‘help out of’ – all clothing; further up the queue, new clothing would be allocated, so that by the time you reached the head of the queue, you were stark naked, clutching a pile of clean clothing. All very efficient for the nursing staff.
It also meant that by the time I neared the head of the queue, I was starkers, and pressed in on all sides by some deeply confused equally naked men and women. The staff took no notice of the general ‘jostling’ that would go on around me – but one of the other patients did. His name was Joss and at 28, he was the nearest to my age. He took to standing next to me in the queue, and snarling at anyone who attempted to touch me.
Joss was 15 years older than me, and a schizophrenic. I didn’t have a clue what that meant, he just seemed to be the only person in that place capable of holding a conversation. He said it was all a misunderstanding that he was there – he should have been in prison for a ‘major bank robbery’, but had ‘pretended to be mad’ to escape prison. That sounded reasonable enough to me – I hadn’t done anything, that I could see, that warranted being locked up in this way, so could sympathise with someone else in the same position. We took to sitting next to each other in the dinning room and the ‘craft room’ that we were led off to each day.
Joss was kind and gentle, and looked after me. If you were waiting for the classic ‘I was an abused child’ tale, you will be disappointed. He never abused me in any way whatsoever. I should also make clear that never received any form of ‘treatment’ at Long Grove. With hindsight, I was undoubtedly deeply depressed, but I wasn’t diagnosed with any dreadful mental illness, I was just ’there’. The only place the general hospital where I had originally been taken to unconscious could think of discharging me to.
One day Joss disappeared under one of the tables in the craft room and beckoned to me. I crouched down under the table to hear what he had to say. Everybody else was milling around the door, waiting to go back to the ward for tea – it was the end of the day. ‘Get under here, and keep your head down, I’ve unlocked a window’. So I did! In time, the building was empty and we duly climbed through the window and ran like the wind across the extensive grounds, eventually making our way to Epsom railway station.
Still waiting for something terrible to happen? Sorry to disappoint again. He took me home to his sister in Brixton who gave me a job working on one of her market stalls. I lived with two female friends of his in a flat in Battersea. Joss went home to his Mother, and appeared occasionally, but not much. I was still very much a virgin – if you need to know – just working hard, paying my way and keeping my head down.
One day, two policemen came to the door. It was me they were looking for, having followed Joss to the address several times. They marched me off down Battersea Bridge Road towards the police station. As we were halfway there, we neared the post office. Three men came running out of the post office pursued by the post master…’you stay right where you are Susanne’ said my policemen and took off in hot pursuit. Needless to say, I was off round the corner like a bloody greyhound. Technically I had just made my position ten times worse, I had now absconded from police custody.
I hitch hiked for three weeks, up and down the country, day and night. I literally had nowhere to aim for, nowhere to go. Lorry drivers bought me bacon sandwiches, leered at me, but decided I was too young to chance their arm. Eventually I hitchhiked the length of Scotland, ending up three miles from John O’Groats late at night. The car driver was worried about putting me down on a lonely road (this was 1962!) late at night. ‘Come home with me’ he said. I declined. ‘You’ll be quite safe, my sister lives there too’. He made her come to the gate to reassure me, she did.
Her name was Jean and she ran the local store and post office. She too gave me a job, helping out in the shop. I lived in her croft with her. They were very poor – it was very primitive, two inch thick glass set straight into the cob walls, no frames! That lasted for about a month until once again a policeman came knocking. He took me into custody – a hilarious affair, since even then they had rules about young children and women, and there was no female police officer, just him and his wife and a cell door which had to remain open and he had to push my food over the threshold….
Two policewomen came up from London to accompany me on the long journey back to London by train. It took about 24 hours from memory. Eventually we ended up at I think it was Waterloo Station, no matter, we had a long wait for the next connection and quite improbably, they decided to take me to the old cartoon cinema that used to be on the platform. Half way through yet another Mickey Mouse effort, sitting between these two uniformed policewomen, one of them went to get some sweets. No sooner had she gone than the other one decided to go to the ladies. I watched her disappear down the dimly lit aisle, and with no sign of the other one hoving into view – need you ask?
I was off again like greased lightening. My 2nd escape from police custody. I made it to Joss’s house – the only place I knew, just as the police arrived there. I was taken to a place called Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood, a now notorious detention centre. I was there for months, five at least. Every three weeks I would appear in court, and the magistrates would ask whether my parents were present. They never were, they refused to communicate whatsoever. Every three weeks the magistrates would make a new order ‘to give time to trace my parents’.
I had broken the law, both in my suicide attempt and twice escaping from police custody, but I was not the usual run of ‘runaways’. I was still steadfastly a virgin, as the indignity of gynaecological examinations proved, had never stolen anything, nor got involved in drugs or anything like that. I was extremely well spoken and well educated – several public boarding schools had seen to that.
But I was just 14 years old and nobody knew what to do with me.