Agnes Meaning Pure

Elizabeth the mug whispers.

Agnes is lopsided on extra pillows. Limbs, sheets and blankets corralled by green candlewick. January light slides through the window and drapes itself over institutional furniture.

The mug displays a name that is not her own. Agnes trails her thumb over its surface, the raised letters brushing her skin. She cradles the mug in her palm, feeling the rough ring of earthenware that stands proud from the glaze that covers its base. Elizabeth the mug whispers.

My mother’s name, recollects Agnes, but she doesn’t think this mug belongs to her mother. Agnes hasn’t seen Elizabeth since she was on the female ward in the asylum’s main building. That would have been sometime in the fifties. Elizabeth didn’t visit after Agnes moved into the shared houses in the estate grounds. She missed her mother’s fortnightly visits, regretted the lost opportunities to show Elizabeth around her small apartment, different in a myriad of ways from its neighbour and so unlike the tightly tucked-in hospital beds and side cabinets of the old building. She could envisage her mother admiring the layout, smoothing the cuff of flannelette sheet turned over the bedspread, tapping her fingers on the polished wood of the easy chair. That never happened, though, because her mother died. Agnes recalls a solicitous young man gingerly holding her hand. He had flecks of amber in his green eyes and spoke softly in that way people do when they are trying to waft bad news away.

According to the mug, Elizabeth comes from the Greek, meaning “My God is an oath”.  Agnes misreads this last word and puzzles over the statement, wonders if some bits of the words might have rubbed off in the loud, angry washers they use in the kitchens.  She can’t imagine anyone, least of all her mother, calling God an oaf.

Her mother asked around and got her a job working in the pottery at Tollcross. The supervisor, Mr Carnwarth, used to wink at all the girls who sat in rows, knees tucked under the wooden benches, raise his eyes to heaven and curse the stupidity of the big lad who unloaded the delivery cart, calling him a clumsy oaf of a boy. Mr Carnwarth said this every week, and every week Agnes laughed at his joke, although it was not funny. She always called her boss his proper name – although he called her Agnes – never knew what his Christian name was.

She knows what her own name, Agnes, means. She was named after her twice-widowed grandmother who brought her up for most of her childhood. Agnes recalls her grandmother saying their shared name meant pure or holy. The old lady repeated this fact so often it became an incantation, a mantra to drown out the child’s illegitimate beginnings and to silence Agnes’s innocent, awkward questions.  

Agnes shifts, rests the mug on a raffia coaster and closes her eyes, mollifying the familiar rising nausea in her gut. There are pills in a cellophane packet on top of the coffee table. Someone will bring them over to her later. They don’t help anyway.

My name is Agnes Weir Lothian, she recites to herself, making no noise but moving her lips along to the words.  I was born in the first year of the twentieth century on the thirteenth of November. I came into the world in the village of Kirkmuirhill in Lanarkshire. My mother was working as a farm servant when she fell pregnant. She never told anyone who my father was. I lived with my grandmother until I was twelve. My mother married a man called William Allison and set up home with him and when my grandmother died I went to live with my mother and her new family in Glasgow.  

Agnes falters here, has trouble remembering how many sons her mother had, visualises the tenement flat in the east end of Glasgow; decides on four. They were small boys when she last saw them, only the two eldest had started school. The baby laughed in loud gulps when he was tickled.

Agnes means pure but the man at the Parish marked “immoral” in the book on his desk. He leaned heavily on the paper and wrote in thick, looping letters.  Agnes sat quietly while her mother answered the man’s questions. Their conversation drifted in the dead air of the windowless room. When the talking stopped, Elizabeth turned to her and explained that Agnes had to go to hospital and do what the doctors and nurses told her and then she would get to go home.

Agnes licks her dry lips and rests the palms of her hands on the cool surface of the blanket. One of the auxiliaries pushes through the bedroom door, carrying a tray. Agnes knows which of them it is before she opens her eyes. This square-set woman has short, blonde hair dry as straw above a face full of gaping pores and, in the stillness of Agnes’s room, her movements are amplified so that even the crunch of sugar in a bowl or the stirring of a teaspoon make Agnes’s head ache and her hollow stomach churn. I don’t know this woman’s name, thinks Agnes.  Perhaps this is the owner of the mug: Elizabeth or Liz or Betty?  Agnes contemplates asking this woman what her name is – time was when she knew everyone’s name, didn’t matter if they were patients or staff – but the moment passes.  She doesn’t ask and it makes no difference.

Instead, she wonders what dying will be like. Agnes has watched other people die. Not many, but one or two. A young lassie called Pauline from the epileptic wing had a fit in the old television room. That would have been the early sixties. The fit came on suddenly and thrust the slightly-built girl against the corner of an iron radiator. It left a deep cut in the side of her head that seeped blood on to the carpet tiles as she spasmed in front of an inert and unappreciative audience. By the time the alarm had been raised and a member of staff summoned, Pauline was slumped and quiet and unresponsive. During the course of the seizure, Agnes was aware that something needed to be done, but equally aware that it was not deemed appropriate for a patient to do it. The girl’s death had been undignified and brutal and remained with Agnes a long while afterwards.  Now, thirty years on, Agnes feels none of the emotion, only recalls a brief flurry of activity and the theme tune to Crossroads playing over that episode’s final scene. 

She tried not to cry when they took her away from her mother. A grown-up girl now, the man at the Parish had said, holding her mother’s gaze until Elizabeth looked away. His breath smelt of tobacco overlaid with peppermint. When her mother departed through the glass door to the waiting room and beyond into the street, Agnes clasped the handles of her small, tan suitcase and rubbed at the bitten skin around her nails.

Elizabeth said it would be alright but it wasn’t.

That was on the eighteenth of January, 1921. Agnes remembers that date perfectly.

An older woman in a dark blue dress with a brilliant white, starched pinafore came into the room and the Parish man stood up from his chair and nodded towards Agnes. They spoke for a few minutes, alternating between incomprehensible expressions barked into the air between them and low, hurried mumblings as they turned their backs to her. Agnes didn’t recognise most of the exchange – a scant few words peppered her ignorance and these she carried with her. The man said he thought she was mentally defective and the woman asked him why. He shrugged his shoulders and said she seemed very childish, appeared to be unaware of the morality of what she had done. The woman asked some more questions and the man showed her the book, said he had told Elizabeth she was to be admitted to hospital on a blank certificate. It was better, they decided, that her lack of inhibition be controlled. It would end badly otherwise.

She followed the lady in the clean pinafore along a narrow corridor to an open space where she waited until a driver arrived, gave her a caramel from a poke, and took her in a car along Duke Street to the Lunatic Ward at the Eastern District Hospital. There were lots of other girls and women on the ward but it was an orderly place, scrubbed floors and clean sheets.  Everyone had a job to do and Agnes kept quiet, behaved herself and did as she was told – opened her legs in as ladylike a fashion as she could while nurses took swabs and applied stinging lotions – oh hen, said one of them with a pitying look, you should have kept your hand on your ha’penny.  After a few days, they took her to The Lock.

Agnes had heard people talking about how the polis would pick up whoors from the street and send them to The Lock. Agnes had very little idea of what a whoor was until Mr Carnwarth spat the word into her ear as he pushed up against her in the small office at the back of the pottery. He leaned into her, spittle pooling in the hollow of her collarbone.  She wished he would stand up and tuck himself back into his trousers. Agnes tried to ignore the stickiness in her drawers – visualised herself away from this particular present, already walking home, skipping up the close stairs to the warmth of her mother’s kitchen where she could give Elizabeth her wages, eat her tea and help put her wee brothers to bed. 

There was no car to take her to The Lock, just a porter who walked the half mile alongside her. The sun was strong and Agnes sweated in her woollen coat. They walked up the Drygate, skirting the curve of the prison walls and crossed over High Street past the Cathedral. The Lock looked more like an office building than a hospital. Agnes climbed the wide stone steps and the porter gave her name through a partitioned window to an unseen recipient. She sat on a bench opposite and waited. 

The ward they put her in was smaller than the one at the Eastern District, but the patients noisier and less biddable. There was enough space between each bed for a nurse and a doctor to pass. The beautifully polished floor seemed more like looking-glass than wood. Agnes recalled the amount of stour that accumulated in the cramped tenement only a couple of hours after she and her mother finished cleaning. 

A slight girl called Mary, younger than Agnes, lay in the bed to her right, barely spoke and sat up only to gobble down her meals. Greta on her left never stopped talking. A big woman, she thrust her bosom forward like a weapon whenever a doctor approached but laughed as she took her foul tasting medicine, telling Agnes a stay in The Lock was one of the perks of the job. Even the douches were a challenge to Greta, who would wind up the younger nurses with swear words – a few that would make a navvy blush and some that Agnes had never even heard. Mary hid from the treatment, Greta almost relished it, Agnes tholed it. She let her knees fall out to the side when the nurse advanced and concentrated on the varying shapes and shadows in the egg and dart of the cornice high above her bed. 

Five months she was kept in The Lock until she emerged cleansed, scraped out, empty and ready for the journey out of the city to the Asylum. 

All this remembering tires her out. Agnes picks at a thread from the candlewick and pulls. It stutters out of its pattern, revealing an even set of tiny holes in the puckered green material.

The bedroom door opens. Agnes awaits the expected heavy footfall of the auxiliary who may or may not be called Liz or Betty but the room remains quiet. She digs the heels of her palms into the mattress and pushes herself up.  No pain, her chest inexplicably clear. There is a woman waiting, silhouetted in the door frame. Agnes swings her legs out from beneath the blankets, her nightdress riding up to expose the slack skin across her thighs. The face of the woman is at once her grandmother, her mother, herself. Effortlessly, she walks across the room to join her.

©  Sarah Smith 2012