Talking to oneself was well known to be the first sign of madness. Mrs Baker was pale and distracted all the time. Her two little girls wore dirty clothes and had crusty nostrils. She would slide into the shop murmuring to herself, like humming a song without a tune. The adults shunned her so we did too. One day I stood near her at the counter and Clem said, full of warmth, “Hello Christine, how are you? You can pay later you know if you need food for the girls.”
Surprised, I realised Mrs Baker had a name and it could be used, just like with normal people. I also became aware of the decency and kindness behind the grocer’s white coat and gold rimmed spectacles.
Mum used to talk to herself and we worried a lot about it, fearing that she was turning into a lunatic. She held interminable conversations with my absent father, hardly bothering to lower her voice, as if sound could not travel beyond the kitchen door. On laundry days the twin tub would be wheeled out and her monologue would rise and fall with the filling of water and the rhythmic agitation of the washer, rising to an accusatory crescendo as the spin cycle reached its peak.
We would listen breathless at the door, willing her to stop, wanting her to be normal. Yet she showed no other signs of madness, save from occasional dire warnings that she was en route to the nearest asylum – “You will drive me to Littlemore” or, more sinister, “At this rate I will end up in ruddy Rampton”. “What’s that mum?” “A loony bin.” How we shuddered.
Teresa and I took a morbid interest in the mad people who congregated at Gloucester Green, the bus station in Oxford. In the smoky high ceilinged café the lonely people endlessly stirred their tea, staring, fiddling, occasionally laughing very loud. Muttering at the slops in her teacup the loony lady took out her orange lipstick and, without a mirror, smudged an oval in the vicinity of her mouth. Waiting near Carfax for the bus home we would be entertained by the flamboyant Joyce, a man we knew to be queer, though whether that was exactly the same as loopy we were not sure. Waving the ends of his chiffon scarf with theatrical gestures, he would perform for the queue until the bus appeared, then move on.
Adults talked in their special whispers about someone having a nervous breakdown and we understood that once this event had happened you would never be the same again and you would always make people sigh. Meanwhile Gran would refer derisively to people she had known years ago, “He wasn’t right in the head” or “She was doolallytap.”
Bats in the belfry, one slice short of a loaf – thus I was educated in problems of the mind. But the euphemisms did not conceal or dilute what grown ups were referring to and we had yet to arrive at the more knowing and equally distasteful abuse of words like paranoid, autistic, or psycho in everyday speech.
After we moved to the town we noticed a mad man in the neighbourhood. It was impossible not to see him as he walked ponderously up and down our street all day most days, generally smoking, often licking his lips salaciously and occasionally speaking. Once or twice when I met him he barred the pavement, stuck his hands deep in his pocket and pulled his trousers up as far as they could go. As he leered and thrust his pelvis towards me I felt disgust and pity, but curiously no fear.
Emboldened by incidents like this, one day I stopped to talk to the mad man and asked how he was. He told me he was having difficulty in sleeping because the car factory down the road was plugged into his brain and using the night shift to suck out all his thoughts. “They don’t care you see, but it’s very troubling and it’s upsetting me. What do you think I should do?”
That was a conundrum I could not answer; nothing in my life thus far had prepared me for that question, although a year or two earlier I had known a boyfriend’s mother who was properly mental. She was fragile, disconnected and lived in a private world. Sometimes she told stories of dark cruelty – how as a young woman nurses had pinned her down with their knees on her chest, strapping her to the gurney for the joyride to ECT. This, she was quite sure, was what had caused her subsequently to develop breast cancer. Netty would walk around her neighbourhood in many layers of ill-assorted clothing, buying large amounts of provisions she did not need and could not afford, often occasioning her husband or sons to return the goods with embarrassed apologies.
Was this a nervous breakdown? I could not tell, but I knew tragedy when I saw it and it was written on that family with indelible ink, penning the words of despair, shame, misery, guilt.
If poor Netty was an obvious nut, my father seemed to the outside world to be just an ordinary bloke, always whistling a catchy tune and ready with a smile. I decided he was a psychopath, a plausible, violent deceiver with no conscience. In pursuit of understanding and with the blessing of my very sympathetic psychology tutor I abandoned for a while the analysis of how children learn for the darker investigation of psychopathology. It got me nowhere. My dad was not mad, he was just bad. He did have a conscience, but had practised self deception for so long he did not have easy access to it.
My father had such a wretchedly low self esteem, such a lack of optimism and agency that his volcanic rage at the injustice of life infected us all with nascent insanity. It took decades for mine to surface and I struggle to live with it still.