The Weight of Silence

NETLEYalice

By the time I was six years old, I understood the world of institutions inside out. Tall walls, locked doors; who holds the key, who wears the uniform. So when we moved into the grounds of a former military mental hospital, I recognised the vast central building for what it was. It was a container—a repository for all that must not be spoken of. What was I? A mere wisp, a whisper: I was no bother at all. I understood that, at any moment, everything could change, that attachments were unreliable, that we could be uprooted again. After two years in a catholic children’s home, we were officially part of a family again: it was just a question of settling down, of finding the right place. My mother had just emerged from a psychiatric hospital, shell-shocked, comatose: my father was now a fully qualified naval mental nurse. Everything was as it should be, except it wasn’t. Flailing around for sustenance, I discovered a still, quiet place deep inside. There in the darkness, buds could silently flower, red berries appear on apparently dead stems. My father began work in the new psychiatric unit and we lived in the shadow of the crumbling mausoleum. Rumours, like the bats, looped through the trees. The closed-up building was alive with ghosts and possibilities. It encapsulated both the threat and the promise of asylum, the lost sanctuary of the convent, the military might of the armed forces. It reinforced the importance of being on the right side. On Sundays, we went to mass in the old chapel there and my mother prayed for a miracle. Within two years, we had moved again.

(Still from “Alice in Wonderland.” Jonathan Miller. 1965.)

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