In 1965 I stayed a spell in a Kentish sanatorium, the same place Stevie Smith stayed in a generation back. We were both aged seven when sent away, and both became obsessed with death. I put it down to the surrounding sickness. And being left like lepers out in Kent, waiting to be healed.
An unfortunate sort of institution in which my favourite pair of knickers were pinched. I bet they were stolen by the scabbed hands of a sad girl grasping at frills. A girl glaze-eyed with sleep and pills, gullet filled with bitter gobstoppers. I’m still sore about it now.
We were sent outside even in the rain, especially in the rain, for fresh air and constitutionals and to lie beneath sky. We’d stretch ourselves taut as tarpaulin but less waterproof, clumps of damp crying about how we’d suffered a drowning. We clung together like moist stamps in a pocketbook, knowing we’d been posted off to have faults fixed and deformities made normal.
My ears were clogged and everything aural seemed underwater. The tiny toolkit of my inner-ear was off-kilter, throwing spanners in my balance so bruises gave me rainbow skin. I had to look at lips for language. Blurs of cupid’s bows, puckered kisses, grimaces and grins. I sought solace and speech in fingers and limbs, chatting with my hands. I rapidly learnt to tell the difference between drowning and waving.
I’d know a wave straight off. Though with waves it’s a matter of whether they signify hello or goodbye. When I was seven I always assumed that waves were saying goodbye. Hellos and let’s go homes echoed in my ears the whole time I was stuck there. Then I turned eight, got grommets, and could go.