"What was I looking at? What was this? At best, it was the first tangible connection I'd encountered between my experiences and the past of Mordan House. At worst, I felt the slow, insistent scratching of the basement of Mordan House down my back"
The files contain sorry tales. Tales of women abused at the hands of their partners to the point where an escape into the protective cocoon afforded by Mordan House became their preferred course of action. Identities hidden, yes. Faces concealed also. But these women walked through the front door of the house with their scars on show, or stitched into the fabric of their souls, and the files are the evidence of those scars let loose, screaming out into the house and the wilderness that surrounds it. The files hide nothing, it seems, and everything is heard and imprinted.
But, at the same time, there was so much that was delicious about being in the café this morning and looking over the files. I know it sounds mean-spirited, uncaring. But after the previous days terrors, it was consoling and reviving to be around people; to lean out of myself, as if out of the window of a fast car, and feel the energy of others invigorating me and, if I'm honest, normalising me. I sat at the café window with the hottest cup of coffee imaginable, looking out at the frozen world and its chilled inhabitants as they stumbled or tiptoed by on the icy pavements, and I found that I didn't think about the fact that the last time I was in the café I was waiting for James. No, I didn't think about it at all after the first 10 minutes and, thereafter, only when I heard the bell ring to announce that someone had entered. Yes, then, and only then, did I think about James standing me up. Oh yes, I can safely say that the time was taken up almost entirely with focusing on the problems of others!
Although the tales in the files are indeed sorry tales, they are coldly and analytically scribed by whoever had that job – there's a professional aloofness in the notes that allows for a level of detail that would be somewhat lost if sentiment had been allowed to play a part. You might find it curious, but I appreciate the dispassionate tone of much of these files. And I understand completely that I feel this way. On the other hand, the examples of artwork, or art therapy, are full of conflicting emotions: love, fear, insecurity, shame, guilt and, most of all it seems to me, rage. I put aside the artwork as quickly as possible when reading each file. I didn't want to consider the emotions and the perspectives contained within them. They made my heart pound, and I felt flushed and nauseous. But when I felt this way, the various sounds of the café were there to imbibe me and bring me back to – dare I say it again? – normality.
"The examples of artwork, or art therapy, are full of conflicting emotions: love, fear, insecurity, shame, guilt and, most of all it seems to me, rage"
In total, I walked away with seven files from the archive room in the basement of Mordan House. Each file details the women's names, previous home addresses, the date of their arrival at the refuge, results from medical examinations, and opinions and quotes from interviews. The files also include the ages of the women and their doctors’ names, and some of the pieces of artwork contain scribbled comments on the backs or in margins. Only some of the papers are typed up from the initial scribbled hand – the refuge must have been significantly behind in its administration. The batch of files that I took were, incidentally, from the filing cabinet of people whose name started with the letter 'C' and spanned the years from 2006 to 2008. Where are these women now, I wondered? Two of the files are closed, but there is just a leaving date, no particulars about why they left or where they went. Once again, all cold and analytical. The women have gone – that is all the files care about. Bureaucratically speaking, one out and another one in. One file closed, another one opened.
"I stared at it. Feeling a connection that I didn't understand. Was I looking at an apparition that had dripped out of my head, wet like ink, and down onto this sketch? My heart was pounding"
All of a sudden I wondered what I was doing. Surely I shouldn't be reading the files at all! I'd started out reading them for clues that would connect my experiences to something about the past of the house, but I realised I was reading purely out of interest. Fascination. Nosiness. Intrusion. It was all interesting history, but private history. As this thought hit home I found myself slamming shut the manila cover of the file I had been looking at and then watching as a piece of paper slipped from the folder and down onto the floor.
Now I was embarrassed by what I was doing, and the sight of the paper drifting down to the ground made me feel that everyone could see it and its contents. I moved quickly to recover it, looking round me at the reaction of the other faces in the café. Reaction? Of course, there was none.
Instead the reaction came from me when I glanced at the piece of paper I'd just picked up. It was a sketch, coloured in with pencils and felt-tipped pens, of planets and stars, but with an unexpected central image. The planets were amazing colours and all different sizes, some with rings and some with moons. At the centre, with black scribbled lines where the darkened visor should be, and with black lines emanating from the white-suited body as if symbolic of dark power, was a white image in the shape of a human. To my mind, unmistakeably, the shape of an astronaut.
I stared at it. Feeling a connection that I didn't understand. Was I looking at an apparition that had dripped out of my head, wet like ink, and down onto this sketch? My heart was pounding. I quickly put the picture back into the folder and started to go back through the paintings and sketches in the other folders, almost frantically searching. Yes, I was now desperately seeking out the very parts of the files that I'd been avoiding minutes before!
I found another one. This time with the astronaut image in the top left corner, the void around it brutally black. Then another in one of the other files. This one depicting an astronaut-like figure dragging a figure across space via black rays, the male figure looking pained and contorted as it seemed unable to resist. Three out of the six files contained such images. It crossed my mind briefly that Mordan House could actually have been some kind of cult, but it was so clear that these images were not a part of all the files and that it was the suffering of physical abuse that was the pervasive thread through all the women's files.
"This was a strange kind of art therapy that was being indulged in Mordan House. It was, to my mind, dark, dark therapy"
But what was I looking at? What was this? At best, it was the first tangible connection I'd encountered between my experiences and the past of Mordan House. At worst, I felt the slow, insistent scratching of the basement of Mordan House down my back. This was a strange kind of art therapy that was being indulged in Mordan House. It was, to my mind, dark, dark therapy.
Looking at these images, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I supected that I'd cry, but then found that I was looking out of the window and giggling into my hand. But before I knew it, tears were also dripping down into my hand as I cried quietly, and as discreetly as possible, with something akin to the feeling of happiness. Take that, Philip! Take that!
The café bell rang to announce another customer entering. I quickly composed myself lest it should be James coming through the door. But it wasn't.
Looking at that interminable absence at the door of the café, the last feeling I recall was emptiness, tinged with tears and vaguely reverberating with the sound of my own departed laughter.