Mirror Image

My twin sister Karen and I were very close. She was my only living relative. It would have been hard enough coming to terms with her death in the normal course of events, but actually being with her and only one step ahead when the scaffolding in the entrance hall of the building in which we both worked colapsed and buried her, was more than I could take. I had a complete nervous breakdown.

I remember very little of the time immediately after the accident, drifting in and out of a sleep-induced hospital world. Just how long I stayed in that twilight zone I can’t recall, but was relatively clear-headed when, one evening, the supervising doctor sat by my bedside and looked at me quizzically.
“Rita, we’ve done all we can for you here. You must be aware that it’s your mind that needs therapy and this facility isn’t equipped to deal with the intensive treatment you that you require. Tomorrow,” he said, taking my hand in his and patting it kindly, “you’ll be moved to a place in the country where you’ll be helped to face what has happened and move on.”

Panic immediately flooded through me. “I don’t want to go. Please keep me here.” The idea of another major change in my circumstances threatened to loosen the fragile grip I had on reality. The doctor shook his head. “You’re beyond our help Rita, but I promise you that your stay at Midway Manor will be productive and that you’ll soon be strong again.”

Given no choice, I was carted away in a car the following morning, one of the hospital staff driving me. It was a very silent journey as I was again in something of a stupor through the calming drug I was given shortly before setting off. My driver didn’t try to converse and seemed content to leave me to my unsettled thoughts. Scenery flitted by, mostly unobserved, other than that as time went by we moved into a more pastoral setting. After what seemed like hours, the car finally arrived at a pair of wrought-iron gates. My driver spoke briefly into an intercom, the gates opened and we drove slowly along a winding driveway before stopping in front of a large, imposing structure that may once have been a manor house. Ivy-clad red stone and age where my first impressions.

I was handed over to a white clad ‘attendant’, as he introduced himself, who insisted on helping me into a wheel chair and pushing me up a ramp running alongside the flight of steps leading into the rehabilitation centre or whatever it chose to call itself. The inside of the building was far more modern than its exterior. Offices and consulting rooms surrounded what was once a baronial hall, with a bank of lifts flanking one side. I was wheeled into one and taken to the first floor. Nervous energy had cleared my mind and I saw that the lift could go up a further flight and wondered briefly how many patients could be accommodated.

My first few days were taken up with interviews with different personnel and doctors and a brief orientation tour, again in the wheelchair, although I was fully capable of walking when not heavily sedated. The tour did not extend to the upper floor but only the one I was on. This had been converted into a long corridor with private en-suite rooms either side, about two dozen in all, no doubt similar to the one allotted to me. Small, clinically white and spotlessly clean. Midway along the passage was a quite decent library on the left and a communal sitting room on the right. I asked the attendant who was wheeling me what was on the upper floor. “More of the same,” he said. “Now let’s show you the gardens.” These consisted largely of manicured lawns scattered with garden beds and shady groups of trees with benches beneath for those patients who wished to use them.

It was only once I had been at Midway Manor for a week and was more or less settled into a routine of sessions with psychologist, psychiatrist and different therapists that it dawned on me that I seldom saw any of the other patients. There was one woman who sometimes made use of the communal sitting room at the same time as I did, but she buried her face in her library book and apart from darting frightened looks my way, ignored my presence. Then there was an old man who seemed to spend most of his time walking up and down the corridor, muttering unintelligibly to himself.

Once I had plucked up courage and started wandering around the building, I met up with some of the other patients, but they all seemed beset by fears and averted their heads when they saw me. Passing some of the rooms, one could not help but be aware of the presence of those occupying them, as some wailed, others called out and a few either sang or talked to themselves. It occurred to me that my mental state was worse than I had thought, as this institution was clearly for the grossly, of not dangerously, insane! This being so, it was surprising that we were allowed so much freedom. I could go where I liked anywhere within the building and in the grounds during those times when I was not undergoing treatment.

For the first few weeks I contented myself with keeping to my own floor and wandering round the ground floor, peering into offices and consultant’s reception rooms, or going for walks in the garden. For some reason I felt reluctant, almost afraid, to climb the flight of stairs to the top level; the “more of the same” of the white-clad attendant.

My psychologist seemed pleased that I was venturing further afield than my room. “You’re making great progress,” he said encouragingly. “At this rate you’ll soon be on your way.” This was a relief as I’d got to wondering how much of the costs would be borne by my medical scheme and how much I would be expected to fork out from my meagre savings. The psychiatrist, too, seemed content with my calmer state of mind and was prescribing fewer and fewer drugs for me. “You’ll not be needing any, pretty soon. There’s just one more major step you have to take.” When I asked what it was, he smiled enigmatically and said, “You’ll know when you get there.”

One rainy day when I’d walked up and down the corridor umpteen times and had enough of the book I was reading, I tried to strike up a conversation with Sue Ann, the woman who sometimes read in the sitting room. She looked aghast, mouthed something silently and skittered back to her room like a frightened mouse. So much for that! The gardens were out, as the rain was still bucketing down, so what next?

Time to explore the upper floor, I decided, and made my way up the flight of stairs. Great was my disappointment on seeing that indeed it was just like the lower, excepting that at the point where we had a library and sitting room, were a pair of wide glass doors dividing the passageway. I wandered towards them, curious as to what could lie beyond. Just more en-suite rooms either side, identical to all the others! I tried to prise the doors open, without success. There were no handles. How stupid, I thought crossly, to have doors that don’t open, then noticed that there was a strip of matting on the other side of the door of the kind that contains an electronic device that activates the doors when someone treads on it. So, I reasoned, patients on the other side of the door could come through if they wished, but those on this side couldn’t. Was that because “they” suffered from mild cases of mental impairment while “we” were the really demented? I turned away in frustration and started walking back the way I had come.

About halfway along the corridor, something made me look back. Far down the passage, way beyond the glass doors, two people were walking towards me. I stopped and watched them. As they came closer, all the breath left my body as I recognised the person on the left. It was my twin, Karen! How could this be? At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me. Her face lit up and she started running towards the doors. I, too, moved towards them and it was only then that I saw that the man running after her was her fiance, Robert. I stopped in confusion. How could Robert be with Karen? He was alive and she was dead; I was seeing a ghost! Karen had reached the strip of matting and the glass doors opened. “Rita,” she cried joyfully, arms outstretched towards me. Robert caught up with her and pulled her back into his arms. “My darling,” I heard him say tenderly as I moved forward to meet my beloved sister, “It’s grief that’s making you imagine you’re seeing Rita.”

The glass doors started to close noiselessly. I surged forwards in an effort to reach them before they shut, and stumbled when I heard Robert add, “She died in that accident, remember? Let me take you back to your room. The nurse can give you something to make you sleep. When you wake up, you’ll feel much better.”

The doors closed. I hammered on them with my fists. Robert and Karen were walking back the way they had come. I cried out in anguish. Karen turned and looked back at me just once, eyes filled with tears. Their figures blurred as they receded into the distance and I was left alone with my jumbled thoughts.


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