The Funny Farm (Short Story)

Broadcast, BBCX Radio 3, 27 April, 1984. Repeat broadcast BBC Radio 3, 11 April, 1985.      

From my window I can see the cows walking towards the byre. They are drugged by sun and stuffed with grass, and look as docile as we do who swallow pills each day. Weighed down by huge udders which bump against their hind legs as they walk, these animals look more drowsy than the ones back at home. I should know; I know all about farming. I’m a farmer’s wife.

The cows are now walking through the door. I count them. There’s a small one at the end of the row. What’s her name, I wonder? What kind of names do these cows have? I’ve no idea. I only know the names they give cows in the neighbourhood where I live.

Farming is rough; it’s not as idyllic as many would think. But that is the life I chose and it would have remained quite pleasant if the accident hadn’t happened. That was just over three years ago, at about this time of the year. The longest day had come and gone, and the river was swelling with the summer tide. We were making hay beside the saltings, and were hurrying to get it into the shed before the weather changed. I didn’t realise that the children were so close when we loaded the trailer six bales high. I didn’t see him behind the tractor. I didn’t see him. It happened so quickly. I had no time to stop .....

Someone is calling for me to go downstairs for lunch. I move slowly because my head is confused; it must be the effect of the drugs. They make us take so many: yellow ones in the morning, red at night and a green one before breakfast. I try to tidy myself up. I pick up my brush and give my hair a few strokes which helps to make me look presentable. I try to take care of my appearance, and make sure that I wash each day. Each evening I wash my clothes: underwear, blouses, tights, even my pullowver and cardigan. Washing my clothes gives me something to do. At home I’m used to washing things, especially the churns in the boilerhouse after the cows have been fed.

If I go on thinking about my home I shall start to weep again, and when the tears come they don’t seem to stop. Pulling my thoughts away from that terrible scene is like yanking a stubborn bull from its cows. They will not budge. However hard I try to divert them, they always return to their original resting-place. Do I want to seek out the pain? Do I really want to punish myself over and over again?

The nurse is calling.
“Come on, Muriel!” she says, “come down for lunch.”
I can tell that she is concerned; they all have their eye on me, because I am their most recent admission.

John brought me here, but I don’t remember much of the journey. We cruised down to the city where we met the psychiatrist, who looked more like a butcher than a doctor. In his surgery stood a dark screen with a hunting scene carved on it -- a stag being torn to pieces by dogs. He asked if I heard voices, and I knew what he was trying to find out.
“No,” I replied, “I do not hear voices.” I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. My mind is quite clear. I notice a lot. I notice, in particular, that we are treated like children, and if we are wise we respond to their orders like children.

When I arrived the sister said I had a kind husband. She is right; he is a good man, and they all said he was wonderful when it happened, but the accident has caused a rift -- a lesion -- between us. I am listless and uninterested. I don’t care about our life together, and I don’t sleep in the same room as him any longer.

Instead I have turned my attention to the animals. They are small consolation, but I still enjoy keeping our pet lambs; since the accident happened I have been keener to watch out for those frail ones who have been deserted by their mothers. They can be so weak, especially when the icy winds whisle up from the sea.

My life seems to be an extended nursery, a situation in which I find myself feeding, coaxing and providing. I like it that way., In winter there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing all of the cows bedded down, some of them standing in their stalls, others lying on thestraw eating hay.

I promised myself, however, that this morning I wouldn’t think about it. Not today anyhow, but my thoughts come back again to that day -- just before tea-time -- when we had been laughing and joking, and the boys were playing “tig”, and we were racing against the clock to get the last load of hay in.

The nurse is calling again.
“I’m coming!”

I walk down the corridor until I reach the stairs. As I go down the steps I hold on to the rail. The hall smells like a boudoir; in the centre is a round table, and placed on it is a vase of flowers: a huge arrangement of roses in a myriad of colours. The sister likes flowers, and when we leave we are expected to give her some. A rich person must have left for I have never seen such a posy of roses as this one: tight-lipped virginal ones, blowzy ones whose outer petals are about to drop, small round ones that look like frilled rosettes. And what a scent! It even blots out the stench of furniture polish.    

I feel a momentary panic when I reach the door of the dining room and notice several heads turning in my direction. I’m not used to these people; I find them quite frightening. I select a table by the window where the Viennese diplomat’s wife sits. She is good to be with; she smiles and says little. She is mountainous and always wears the same dress: it is made up in green tweed with satin trimmings. She wears court shoes and has a handbag to match. What has brought her here, I wonder? But I know better than to probe; here, it is tacitly agreed that we wait for our companions to disclose the reasons for their descent into this grey, nether world that we all inhabit; like prisoners our pasts are touchy and clandestine until we volunteer to reveal what is in them. Usually the disclosure comes in a torrrent, like the water gushing from a burst pipe after the ice has thawed.

She holds out my chair for me to sit down. She is so polite. I notice that her dress has a large grease stain on it, just above the waist. It makes me want to cry. How she would hate to be thought of in the salons of Europe sitting in this place like a homesick child in its first week at boarding-school, with a huge mark on her front.

“It’s pork today,” she says.
I say nothing; there isn’t anything to cap such a remark; pork is pork, and I wouldn’t care it it were beef or mutton or even chicken. She eats without savouring what she eats, while I pick at the flaccid, fatty flesh. At first we don’t bother to talk to each other. What is there to say anyway? After all we’re not in the Spanish Embassy entertaining the Russian attache, but in the funny house trying to get better.

There is, however, something between us. Let’s not say it is a strong bond, but we do like each other, and our growing friendship is similar to those attachments often found in schools, offices, prisons or regiments: forced freindships, and quite ephemeral, but sometimes no less supportive than the bond of love or blood. I know that after we leave our paths will not cross; I shall go back to my sheep and cows and she to her embassy parties.

She begins to make conversation with me and I try to return her interest in my country by asking her about hers:
“I have never been to Vienna. Is it as beautiful as they say?”
She nods. It’s true that I know nothing about Vienna but I have seen photgraphs of the Spanish Riding School with its famous white horses, whose necks bend like the curve of a Gothic window.
“It’s not quite as magnificent as it used to be!” she says. She talks continuously of houses that crumble, things that fade, and of a world that looks as if it is veiled in thick gauze: a twilight zone full of muted colours, blurred images and dull sentiments. It is similar to the world which I live in. Yet they say I will recover. What did the doctor tell me when he admitted me? We shall look after you until you feel ready to take up the cudgels again.

But I can’t stop thinking about the accident. I’ve gone over the events time and time again, especially at night when I’ve been trying to sleep. At home I would wake up early in the morning and go to the window to watch the swifts darting in and out of the eaves and in winter I would hear the coarse talk of the geese as they soared upriver in their neat squadrons. I used to love that time in midwinter when the sky was pink and the frost made the grass look as if it was a tangle of silver wire. The geese flew in to feed on the saltings; where did they come from, those strong birds? From Greenland or some other snowy waste? When I went outside to feed the ponies I would carry the child on my back. He wore a knitted cap and his cheeks were red from the cold air; I felt his hot breath on my back.

“Are you having custard with your pears, Muriel?”
That nurse has taken over my role of coaxer, feeder and provider. I don’t mind. I don’t care about anything any more. I tell her that I don’t want any pears or custard.

When lunch is finished we are told to go to the O.T. room. The Viennese lady seems to have apointed herself as my guide.
“Come,” she says, as she takes my hand. We sit beside each other and pull our chairs close to the table. I know I must pretend to be interested in making something; it’s a black mark if I don’t. The occupational therapist charts our progress, and after she has supplied two men with some cane from her cupboard, she comes over to me to ask if I would like to knit or sew or do patchwork or basket-making. But as soon as I see the others busily weaving with their cane -- quite adjusted to their vacuous lot -- I’m seized by a terrible panic. So this is it; here I am -- washed up, tossed aside, run down, and run into the funny house, swept into a siding, told to recoup, remodel, re-assemble

myself and glue together the shattered pieces. I try not to let the woman see my distress, but the Viennese lady has noticed. She comes to my rescue by telling the O.T. that I will make up my mind after she has shown me her crochet I thank her for her help by giving her a smile.

I sit there mesmerised by the short, sharp movements she makes with her hook. A small girl, who never speaks, sits close to us knitting. A book lies on her lap,but I suspect she doesn’t read because I never see her turning the pages. She is quite young. A tear falls on to a page of the book but she doesn’t bother to mop it up. I have never seen anyone cry so silently. She turns towards me and says that I can borrow her book if I want to. I take it from her, and start reading. As far as I can see the story is of nurses who fall in love with doctors. The nurses are always pretty and the doctors are always tall, dark, handsome and clever. The nurses won’t sleep with the doctors until they are married and, according to the girl, this kind of story always ends happily.
“Everything get ironed out in the end,” she says.

My friend (I think I have the right to call her that) says I should go to the dining room to have tea with her. We sit there and look out of the window on to the farm, and the nuses give us salad to eat. She starts to tell me about the time when she and her husband stayed in Paris.
“We had beautiful food,” and she enumerates sumptuous dishes which contrast with the food I cook at home; it is plain and simple.
With all those servants, I wonder how she spent her time in the embassy and, as if she can read my thoughts, she adds:
“I made up the seating arrangements. It is quite an art; you have to know who is in favour with whom.”
I could imagine that she would make a good hostess.

In this place the hours before sunset are the most dreary: dusk comes slowly. We fill in time by playing Scrabble or by watching television. My Viennese friend asks if I would like to take a walk with her down to the farm. But I am too sleepy; my legs feel heavy and I want to go to bed. Sleep is like a delicious film of forgetfulness that encircles my body: a nectar and a reprieve from the gods.

I tell my friend that I want to go to bed. When I reach the landing, I meet the same nurse who called for me to come downstairs to lunch this morning. She stretches out an arm but I dodge away from her. I don’t like being touched, not even by someone who is friendly. I tell that I’m too tired to join the others; reluctantly she lets me go, and as I walk along the passage she gives me a look which makes me feel that I am like a shy girl playing truant from a children’s party.

This house -- a slim Palladian mansion - is so elegant; its fine proportions cast a spell over the occupants, preventing them from indulging in the worst of excesses -- or so it seems to me. My room, which I share with two other women, is furnished in chintz, soft bed-spreads and table-lamps. An armchair has been placed by the sash window.

I walk over to the window, lean against the sill, press my nose against one of the panes of glass and look out on to the lawn.   If I look into the distance I can see the farm buildings, which are flanked by a group of chestnut trees. With their branches lopped off, the trees remind me of mutants; I think of our own chestnuts back home, whose branches straggle and bend down generously to the ground.

I don’t bother to draw the curtains before I undress, because I have lived in the country all my life I have no need to be so modest. I feel cold standing there in my nightdress. It is quite quiet outside, except for the occasional sound of pigeons chortling on the roof, and the moan of the milking-machine at the farm.

It is when I hear the dairyman shouting at his dog from across the field that it all comes flooding back.
On that evening the children were there in the byre nipping in and out of the stalls. He pleaded with me to let him go out to the field where they were about to bring in the last load.
I wanted to say no because it was late and he had to be up for school the next morning. But I gave in and took him there and let him play with the other children. They were chasing each other around the field, throwing bits of hay into the air, and pushing each other on to the ground. John was tired -- he had been working since dawn-- and he asked me to drive one of the tractors back to the barn. I remember I climbed up and sat down on the seat. I switched on the engine, put my foot on the clutch and shoved it in gear. But I had never really mastered the way those tractors worked and the gearbox was always stiff. Then I placed my foot very gently on the accelerator but didn’t realise until it was too late that I had put the tractor into reverse. How I didn’t notice him there I will never know. But I didn’t. There was a jolt when the tractor lurched backwards; I felt the impact of the trailer when it hit something. I heard a scream and then someone shouting. After that I remember nothing. My memory has chosen to draw a veil over the incident; it is kind to me, for however hard I try to recall what happened afterwards, my mind remains a blank.

I can’t stop crying; the tears fall onto my hands, which are still resting on the windowsill. Through the screen of salty water I can see the cows coming out of the shed. This time their burden has been shed. Their udders are less bloated than they were this morning. I imagine that I can hear the machine sputtering to a stop as the dairyman switches it off, and can detect the familiar smells of sickly, warm milk and fresh dung. Then I notice the small cow taking its place at the end of the row as its companions file along the track towards the field. She looks more docile than she did this morning -- quite content with her lot, having milk tugged from her with monotonous regularity. She waits at the gate to be let out.

It is the sight of her, whose name I shall never know, that makes me break down finally into a sobbing that I cannot control.