There is a little girl in this story, who is reading a story. The story she is reading is of family and deception. Little does she realises that her own story is no different.
“We’re nearly there.” She says blankly. I glare at the cracked screen of my phone.
No wonder that her heart was lost –
Her senses first were gone.
City lights dance on my face. I don’t shy away from them but the twinkling lights feel hot on my skin. I can’t look at the city right now. I know we are somewhere near my high school which means that in five minutes, I’ll have to get out of my car and say goodbye to my mom some time after that.
The thought itself makes me squirm so I read the blog post ahead. The car takes a turn after a long journey on a straight road and I hold my breath. The car will soon stop in front of a creaking front gate. The guard will ask my mom to show the receipt. I don’t want to think about what comes next. The destination gets closer but I am not done reading her story. What happened to her when she moved into the Montagu House? I hold onto my phone tightly. I’ll get ten minutes tops before they take it away.
I hear my mom saying that we’re here but I don’t respond. The car stops in front of the malicious gate. My mom fiddles about in her purse in search of the crumpled receipt. With all the trash in there, I hope that it takes her a while. The guard plays along with my mother’s small talk but I see him tapping his pen furiously on the counter.
Twenty seconds. Impressive. She flashes the ruined piece of paper to the guard. He checks the receipt and lets us in. I dive back into the story. If I try hard enough, I can pretend that I am back home. For ten minutes at least.
The car comes to a screeching stop in front of the grey building. She is in a hurry. I still don’t know why.
She looks back at me and squeezes my hand. I don’t meet her eyes. I don’t want to discover more lies staring back at me. She gets out of the car and goes around to the back to remove the little belongings I have. That’s my cue. I get out of the car before my mind can protest. There is no turning back because I don’t have anywhere else to go.
We walk into the building side by side. It’s just as I remember. Green coloured walls and an equally boring woman at the reception. My mom goes over to discuss the details. I look back at my phone. Elizabeth was known to throw tantrums. People were always wary about her unpredictable nature. I scoff. Unpredictable nature, my foot. Maybe she was just fighting the demons in her head. It’s a ruthless battle. You can’t let the voices win. Does that look like a tantrum to the public eye? Am I a source of embarrassment too? I look up at my mom trying to hunt for a pen in her purse, presumably to scribble down my room number in her diary. She can’t even remember my room number. I know what her answer would be. I don’t need to ask her.
We briefly follow the hallway to my misery. I remember my first day here. I was twelve and I treated the voice in my head like a friend. I was quickly reminded that it wasn’t. Did Elizabeth feel the same way when she entered her chamber in Montagu House? At least she had maids to attend to her. We stop in front of room number 22 and the nurse opens the pale door. “This is where you’ll be staying.” Her smile is sickeningly forced. “You should have a look. The room is equipped as was agreed.” She addresses my mother this time. The smile grows deeper. I go back to the blog post.
I feel so empty these days. I have been living in an unusual place. Working on contradictions, the room defies the laws of Physics. It looks like a black hole but I can hear the beeping machines that stay glued to the ground. And it’s always bright in here. I close my eyes and I can feel it shining. It doesn’t let me sleep. I open my eyes to a blinding white light peering at me. I hate it. The mattress I fall back on everyday is worryingly thin. The bed frame almost touches the ground. I am quite sure that it sinks in a little every day. I am waiting for the ground to swallow me up. I’ll be glad.
The cleaner bleaches the floor once in every six days. The room smells like a disinfectant. It fills up my nostrils atrociously. Are they trying to clean my insides too? The walls don’t entertain me much. They are a screaming pale brown. The ceiling stares back at me blankly. I wish my ceiling had more colours or even patterns on it. I lie awake sometimes. I prefer not to be consumed by my thoughts. At times, I can’t differentiate whose thoughts they really are. I saw a few pictures of the Montagu House the day I was brought here. The ceilings of the chambers were adorned with fresco paintings. Elizabeth lived in a beautiful house. Full of distractions, I assume. Maybe that’s why she outlived her conniving husband.
I have figured out that the machines speak to me. The language– Morse code. I believe so because my frenemy doesn’t speak in Morse code. And I don’t have much company. It beeps 30 times in a minute, 60 times in two and 1800 times in an hour. But who knows for sure. I was never good at math. Oh well, I’m slowly getting a hang of it. From what I have deciphered, it goes something like: ___ ___ die __ leave. That or they are planning to usurp the human civilisation. If machines are going to take over the world one day, I am certain that this one right in front of me will lead them. It hates me. It doesn’t let me live. It doesn’t let me die. But it counts the number of days I’ll spend in this hell hole. Contrary to my expectation, I lost the ability to do so a while ago.
I have syringes jabbed into my bloodstream. The nurse comes every few weeks to take more of my blood. Our blood contains RBCs, WBCs, platelets and plasma. It’s a pool in which our cells chill. I know what happens to me when my platelet count is low. I know what happens to me when my WBCs are lacking. I know my statistics because the doctor has kept repeating these to me since I was twelve. But then, I was diagnosed with a low vitamin B12 count a few days after my arrival here. That was new. More statistics. After the diagnosis, I am slowly learning about it too. They think I am naive. They have termed my disease a lack of a certain vitamin. I know what the disease is popularly called. They don’t need to hide it from me. But I play along with their ruse, just like Elizabeth, I suppose.
The nurse is back today. She holds my weekly report and a glass with colourful pills. Sadly enough, these pills excite me. They bring a bit of colour in my life. The walls are a dirty brown. The lights and my clothes are white. The machines are grey. I am tired of them. I might have even hallucinated my own blood being one of these colours. I had truly started believing that I had developed a fancy disability which only allows me to perceive the tricolours until the pills started coming in. I sit up and the nurse hands me the pills. She pours water in the now empty glass and hands it to me. I don’t want to hear the report today. I already know what it says. She clears her throat and opens the file.
“Do you know Ralph Montagu?” I interrupt her. Her eyes flit across my face. I keep my gaze intact. She shuts the file and asks,” The ambassador to the court of Louis the XIV?”
‘That’s the one.” I nod. “Everyone knows a bit about him but only a few know about his second wife, Elizabeth Monck.”
“Is that so?” She keeps the file by my bed and walks towards the machine my syringes are hooked to.
“Yes. She believed that she was the empress of China.” I reply.
“That’s preposterous.” She takes a brief pause from inspecting the fluid bag that hangs from the machine and looks at me puzzled. “What made her believe so?”
“Well, Ralph Montagu was an ambassador but he also wanted to be a duke.” She tugs at the bag slightly and I feel the syringe twitch inside my vein. I bite my lip to keep the pain down till it recedes. I, then, continue, “To fulfill his goal, he settled on marrying Elizabeth after his first wife died. She was a widow of Christopher Monck, the duke of Albemarle. A lot of suitors were after her wealth just like Ralph. But Elizabeth had sworn that she’d only marry a reigning monarch. Poor Ralph had great plans but not a lot of money to execute them. But he was clever. He courted her in the guise of the emperor of China.”
She goes back to the file and writes something down. Without looking at me, she exclaims, “How the hell did he pull that off?”I try not to be curious about the report. I have learnt by now that nurses only engage in long conversations when something is wrong. She suddenly halts her frantic scribbling. I might have paused too long.
“Funny that you ask. He dressed up like a Chinese monarch. Probably in a flowing silk robe. Luckily, his ruse wooed Elizabeth enough to say yes to his proposal. She lived in the Montagu House till eighty. She was surrounded by people who were carefully instructed by the newly appointed duke to keep the illusion alive. She was addressed as the empress of China. I don’t know if she even visited the country but she believed she ruled over it.”
“She should’ve been brought to a hospital like ours.” She deadpans.
I avert my gaze to the small window by the adjacent wall. The sky is clear. No hint of clouds. A perfect day for the beach. My lips turn upwards ruefully. “I think she was happy. Who wouldn’t be? Living a life of the empress of China in a beautiful house must be nice.”
“What did he do with the money then?” She is hardly paying attention and I am conscious of the file again. She will discuss it any minute now. I start, “He built a french-inspired stately house in the Northamptonshire. It’s called the Boughton House. It’s spectacularly built.”
“Men.” She sighs. “Always benefitting off naive women.” She snaps the file shut again and tucks it under her arm.
“Not always men.” I say weakly. “And people aren’t always naive. Sometimes, they are just helpless.”
She motions at the glass in my hand. “Don’t forget to take your pills. I’ll be back in a while to unhook you.” She points at the godforsaken machine. I nod and she leaves soon after. Once she is out the door, I congratulate myself at the successful deflection of the results for the day. I can’t escape her forever. She will be back with it the day after tomorrow. Till then, I’ll try to keep my earnest urge to yank these syringes off myself and cut up my wrists like my frenemy used to tell me to. She visits less often nowadays. The pills might be working. What bad news was my file eating up then? I’ll come to know soon. Right now I am only aware of the fact that these pills aren’t working enough to get me out of this damned place. I pop the pills in my mouth and take a grateful sip of water. My back hits the mattress right after.
I hear my mother screaming and my hand halts on the canvas sheet. She is being too loud. I can’t paint if her shrill voice keeps breaching my bedroom. I put the brush down on the palette and move towards the door. I push my ear at it. “How could you do this to me, Adam?” Her voice is muffled but exceptionally shattering. My heart beats at 100 miles an hour. I contemplate if I should go down there.
I decide to tiptoe down the stairs to the kitchen. I crouch and sit against the nearest wall that hides me from their view but not them from me. My dad is in his grey sweater. He is dressed shabbily. He has not had a good day. His fingers are picking at the roots of his hair. He looks exhausted. Suddenly, a glass bowl comes shattering down the kitchen floor. The hairs at the back of my neck stand up in unison. She is really angry.
“I was ready to leave you, Adam. We weren’t working out. And now you go and cheat on me? More reason to go through with the divorce.” She flails her hands around, the lines on her forehead deepen and her hair moves with her neck furiously. I am twelve. I know enough now. I know how this will end. My mood sours at the thought and I drop my head in between my knees. I want it to get over soon. Rip the band-aid at one go.
“You never cared about our marriage, Claire. But yes, I made a mistake. I take full responsibility. I’ll do anything to make up to you.” He is desperate. What have they placed their bets on this time?
“How should I think straight when my own husband has cheated on me? You think I’ll let you win the custody of our daughter? When I have more evidence to leave you now? Is that what you think?” I look up at the words. She is leaning on the kitchen platform. She looks strangely calm, almost in the mood to celebrate like a winner. I don’t believe her words.
“She loves me, Claire. She has always been more fond of her father. Just accept it. Let me have her custody. I’ll take care of her.” He begs and I look away. I can’t see him like this. “You can’t take care of her alone.” She moves closer and points a finger at him. “You already know she is not right in the head. Looking at you with the other woman will only make her madder.” She finishes with gritted teeth.
I hate this. I want to run to him and scream at her. I don’t want to be separated from my dad. Hot tears stream down my cheeks but I stay put. She continues, “This is what you’re gonna do. I am going to divorce you and win her custody and you’re going to pay for alimony and child support. Do you understand?”
Do you understand?
I wake up in cold sweat. The words keep ringing in my ears. I bury my head in my palms and sob till my tears run dry. It has been four years but this memory continues to plague my dreams. I look around the darkness surrounding me. I wish he had fought for me. I wish he wasn’t scared. He never checked where she was putting all the money. I had once stumbled upon a letter from a foreign bank. The content said something about a country house in Italy. Another letter in the pile clarified my suspicion further. The amount my dad was paying was always greater than my school and hospital fees. It didn’t take much logic to put two and two together.
“Guess we both know a Ralph Montagu, huh, Elizabeth?” I mumble softly and fall back asleep.
They let me take a stroll in the hospital garden from time to time. I have a feeling that they know the pills aren’t working as well as they expected and locking me up in my room will make me go insane. I asked them one day if I can plant some flowers in the garden. It looks barren, devoid of life. I can’t take any more signs of living death in this hospital. In one of her rare visits, my mom brought me seeds of dandelions, roses and tulips. Now the garden is thriving. Today is my permissible day to visit the flowers. I gather myself and make my way to the hallway. A couple pass me by and I faintly hear them talking about the dandelions. They grew up well, I muse, and walk to the garden. I take my usual spot at the seat near the dandelions and breathe in gratefully. These are the only days of the month I cherish.
The sun is gleaming. The finches are chirping loudly, probably basking in the beautiful day like me. I look at the yellow dandelions swaying in the soft breeze. They are in full bloom and I still remember when I sowed the seeds. The sky had been cloudy and I was expecting it to rain. I didn’t pat the soil on the seeds well. I was unsure if they would grow. But they survived. We all survive, unfortunately.
This also means that I have lived quite a few months in this jail. It becomes clearer everyday that I am locked up here to die while I live. I used to think that Elizabeth must have been happy in the palace. Day by day, I realise that I was wrong. You can’t be happy in a place that constantly reminds you that you’re a misfit. Her palace was a jail too. Her attendants– jail keepers.
The more I live here, the better I understand that she knew she wasn’t the empress of China. She was the mad duchess. A fool in a play. A broken character in a novel. Just like me. She just played along with the ruse. Just like all helpless people do.