Group Meeting Chapter 1 by Iris Carden
1. Monday Morning
They sat in their usual circle, in their usual varying attitudes of attention and inattention, waiting for the week to begin.
“OK”, Sarah looked down at her notes. “Well it’s the start of another week. How did everyone go over the weekend?”
Residents looked from one to the other. No-one ever wanted to speak first.
“OK,” Sarah looked down at her notebook. “While you’re thinking about it, here’s our morning notices. Lifeskills this morning is in the kitchen with Kara – you’re going to be making spaghetti bolognaise.”
Chantal shook a dirty blonde curl out of her face. “I can’t have spaghetti bolognaise. I’m vegetarian.”
“When did that happen?” Bobby said, looking curiously at the fingernail he’d just been biting. “You ate sausages at the barbecue yesterday.”
“I’ve had an epiphany,” Chantal said, “I’m vegetarian now. I can’t eat another living thing.”
“It’s not living once it’s meat,” Johnno laughed, that grating, annoying laugh that always made Sarah think of a cat having its tail pulled.
“Don’t be disgusting,” Chantal said. “It’s wrong to eat another living thing, or even something that used to be living.”
“Better not eat any vegetables then,” Johnno squarked as he laughed again.
“I think,” Sarah interrupted, “we need to respect Chantal’s choice here. Chantal, I’m sure Kara can help you make yours without meat.”
“I don’t want to be in a kitchen where people are cooking meat,” Chantal said. “The smell will make me sick.”
“Didn’t make you sick when you ate five sausages yesterday,” Bobby was examining the next fingernail. “You were leaning over the barbecue saying they were taking too long to cook, and how good they smelled.”
“You can cope with the kitchen, I’m sure,” Sarah said.
“No, I can’t. I absolutely can’t.”
“Chantal, you know the condition of being here is that you take full part in the program.” Sarah tried to keep her voice calm, even. “You can’t just leave out the parts you don’t like. Lifeskills is central to the program. You committed to doing it when you came here.”
“So do it,” Johnno laughed, “or you go back up to the ward, and you’ll never, ever, ever, get out.”
“That’s enough, Johnno,” Sarah said sharply. “Chantal, you will go to lifeskills. You don’t have to cook or eat meat, but you do have to go to the kitchen for a cooking session.”
“I’m going to write to the Health Minister about this,” Chantal pouted.
“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You have the right to write to anyone you like, but while you’re here, you’re sticking with the program.”
“It’s all right Chantal,” Jilly said. “You don’t have to smell the meat. If you cook at the end stove, near the door, you can’t smell what’s on the other stoves. That’s what I do when it’s fish.”
“Listen to Jilly,” Johnno laughed. “She knows so much about problem solving. What problem did you solve to end up here, then Jilly?”
“Johnno,” Sarah snapped, “that’s more than enough. Jilly, thank you for your suggestion, I’m sure that will help Chantal a lot.”
Jilly blushed, looked down at her feet, brown hair falling over her face. Her arms and legs pulled tightly into herself. She rarely spoke, always afraid of drawing attention to herself.
“It’s all a joke anyway, isn’t it?” Johnno demanded. “We’re never getting out of here. This is the best there is. It’s only here or the ward, isn’t it? Isn’t that the truth? We’re learning lifeskills, and communications, and we keep talking about when we get out of here. But we aren’t are we? It’s not just that we’re crazy. We’re dangerous and crazy. Nobody would let us loose. Not ever. If Chantal doesn’t cook her spaghetti, you can send her back to the ward, but there’s nowhere else she can go is there? This is it. This is our world. Here and the ward. There’s nothing else.”
“Johnno, you’ve been told this before,” Sarah explained slowly as if to a child. “You are all at the half-way house, to prepare to live in your own homes out in the wider community. You came here from the ward because your medication and your therapy are working, you are well enough to leave the hospital. What we’re doing here is helping to prepare you to be able to live away from the hospital without getting sick again.”
“We’re so well,” Johnno said, “that’s why we’re caged. There’s three metre tall fences all around us, with razor wire on top. We can’t go out unsupervised. No-one can visit without signing in and out, and being searched for weapons or drugs.” Johnno wasn’t laughing anymore. “This is a jail, and we’re never getting out. We don’t deserve to get out.”
“That’s all just basic security, for your protection,” Sarah tried to keep her voice at a calm, professional level. She did not understand why Johnno always seemed to upset her. Perhaps it was because he was right – she certainly wouldn’t want someone who’d done what he’d done living next door to her – maybe he would leave one day, but he should not. “People have been known to break into health facilities to steal medication, or money, or take advantage of vulnerable people. And as you pointed out, some people would view you as dangerous, or might have a grudge against you because of things you did when you were sick. Some people might want to use personal violence against you so they feel safer or as if they are protecting society or whatever.”
“Yeah,” said Johnno, “we need protection.”
“It’s not a jail,” Bobby said, looking at a nail on the other hand. “We’re not prisoners. We go out. We’re not convicted of any crime.”
“Because we were found mentally incompetent to plead,” Johnno said. “So we were shoved in the ward, and then we were moved here when they couldn’t say we were so sick we had to stay in hospital. Why is the half-way house only ever used for people like us? Why hasn’t there ever been someone who just had depression or tried to bulimia or something like that? There’s this whole facility, big enough for thirty residents, but there’s only four of us here.”
“You’re a trial group,” Sarah said, resolutely. “I’ve explained this to you before. If this program works really well for you, other people will be transferred here from the ward, or from other parts of the hospital, or even other hospitals.”
“Even the ward is only for people like us,” Johnno said. “I was there two years, and there were never more than two or three people there at a time. A whole hospital ward for two or three patients! And only ever people who’ve done really, really bad stuff, people who are thoroughly evil.”
“You are not evil,” Sarah said, with overstated patience, “you have just been very, very sick. You are getting better. Yes, the ward, and the half-way house are for extremely sick people, and there’s not a lot of people who have been as sick as you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re in a jail. It means you have a lot of special needs. We’re here to help you deal with that, give you the skills so you can live out in the community. When you’ve finished the program, you will be able to leave, to go to community accommodation, maybe with a bit of extra support.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Chantal said quietly. “I belong here.”
“For now,” Sarah said, “you belong here. But when you finish the program, you can have a home of your own, and you will belong there.”
“How long before we finish the program?” Johnno asked.
“For always,” Chantal said. “This is my penance. This is purgatory. I’m being purified, so I can be forgiven.”
“You can’t be forgiven,” Johnno said. “None of us can.”
“This isn’t about what you’ve done,” Sarah said, “this isn’t punishment. The program, and all the staff are here to help you, to help you get well, and to live independently. This is about the future, not the past.”
“We are being punished,” Chantal said resolutely. “We have to repent enough to be forgiven. That’s why I have to give up meat – to show my repentance.”
“Chantal, I wonder if this is something you need to discuss with Doc, or with the chaplain? It just doesn’t seem to be a real reflection of what’s going on here.”
“No,” said Johnno. “It’s more accurate than you’re saying. We are here to be punished. But you can’t repent. You can’t be forgiven. You can give up meat or chocolate, or whatever you want – that doesn’t change what you’ve done. You have to live with it forever.”
“But you did what you did when you were very sick,” Sarah tried to regain some control. “I think there’s a lot of issues here that both of you need to talk to Doc about. Fortunately, it’s Doc’s day here. This afternoon you all have your appointments with him – Chantal, you’ve got the 1pm appointment, Johnno you’re 1.45, Jilly you’re 2.30 and Bobby you’re 3.15. Everyone got that? Do you need me to repeat it?”
“So it’s the same times as we always have on Doc’s days?” Bobby’s right index finger was now bleeding, from his constant biting.
“Yes,” said Sarah, “just the same as always.”
“Nothing ever changes,” Bobby said, “you could just put a printed schedule on the noticeboard – and not have to tell us every morning.”
“Would you like a printed schedule?”
“Well, it’s off to the kitchen now to cook with Kara. This afternoon you have free time except for your appointments with Doc. Is there anything else? No? I’ll see you back here for wrap-up at four.”
(Novella) In a facility for the criminally insane, a group of people with sinister pasts starts to be visited by a girl who doesn’t exist.
Note: regular readers will have expected a chapter from my current work in progress today. I can’t give you that because I’ve had a very disorganised week, and haven’t known what day it was most of the time. Blame lupus, medication, or my age, or the the hot humid weather, I don’t really know what. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get a chapter written in time.