In September my grandmother has a psychotic episode. My Grandpa Charles wakes in the night to find his wife in the dark hallway, thrashing about with a broom handle, trying to protect herself from the intruder who is raping her daughters. She does not know who Grandpa is and he cannot calm her down. The police arrive, following up Grandma’s emergency 111 call. But they do not find the man with the black dog. They find an old man in his night shirt, comforting an old woman with a broom. She is crying. “She didn’t know what she was doing,” says Charles, and the police nod their heads. When it happens again a few nights later Charles calls an ambulance and Viola is taken away.
I drive up to Christchurch from Dunedin to visit Grandma Viola. My mother Barbara is already there, having booked an urgent flight from Wellington a day after she heard the news. I am crying as I drive and I feel guilty. I am crying because my boyfriend and I have broken up and I have been struggling with a decision to leave Dunedin and go back home to Wellington. I am desperate to get out of Dunedin. I need to escape the vomit and the chanting. I need to see my mum and my aunties. I want to feel better. As I pass Timaru, I look forward to Christchurch. The reality of Grandma’s situation does not hit me until I walk into it.
Ward K1 at Princess Margaret Hospital is the locked psycho-geriatric ward. The smell hits me as soon as I walk in the door. Urine mostly, and an industrial-strength disinfectant. No one greets me as I enter. The ward is understaffed and every available nurse is busy with the zombies. Men and women with hunched posture and confused, searching eyes wander up and down the halls, their feet scuffing the grey carpet. Sometimes they reach a dead end and a nurse, or an understanding visitor, gently turns them around by the shoulders so they can wander back the other way. Distraction is crucial. Distract them and they will stop crying. There are big plastic dolls, the size of real babies. “The first years of motherhood are common for women to revert to,” explains a nurse with a blunt manner and practical hands, “it’s comforting for them to have something to hold on to.” Some make awful noises. Howling and groaning. I stop to talk to an old lady in a smart woollen suit with carefully styled hair. She smiles and asks politely whether I know if her daughter has arrived to take her home yet? She is articulate, well mannered and for a second I pause, wondering if this woman is a fellow visitor. Before I have time to respond the woman lines me up and, using the full force of her tiny body, shoulder barges me into the corridor wall.
“Whoopsie,” I stammer, embarrassed, “never mind…” But the smart suit is already wandering back down the hallway.
My mother arranges to talk to Viola’s doctor. Charles and I go with her and he holds my hand. “Viola’s been on anti-depressants and hormone replacement for over 40 years,” my mum tells the doctor. “I’m sure it must have affected her health.”
The doctor purses her lips. “It’s something we will look
Viola Hardy is small now. She has soft crêpe-paper skin which hangs from her bones. Her hair is so fine that it can no longer hold curlers at night and sticks out in a wispy halo of airborne strands. She trips because she shuffles her slippers as she walks. My mother remembers Viola with a full bosom and powerful arms. She stood with her legs planted then, balancing her weight evenly on shoes with a sensible heel. She was often wearing an apron. When my mother was ten, she was allowed to stay up late for a dinner party. She remembers beating a bowl of fresh cream for dessert with so much vigour that it curdled and turned yellow. She stood paralysed in the far corner of the kitchen, holding the bowl with both hands, until Viola came and found her. My mother could not speak for fear, but that evening, Viola laughed. My mother’s cheeks were hot as Viola took the bowl to show to the guests.
Charles sits in the hospital canteen and watches Viola eat. He is wearing both a thick jersey and a woollen vest under his padded jacket. He keeps his large, square glasses in his shirt pocket, which means he has to burrow through the layers of clothing every time he wants to find them. He becomes tunnel-visioned when he enters the hospital. He watches Viola. He guides her through doorways with his hand on the small of her back. He bumps into people in the corridors because he is watching her feet to make sure she does not fall. He hates leaving her there at night.
Grandpa Charles remembers his fierce protective instinct, watching as passers-by stop to stare at the legs of his girlfriend in the Ballentynes window display. “Viola was twenty then,” he says, “we hadn’t been courting very long.” There was a mock-up of a red bus in the window which Viola sat behind, its sole passenger. Her torso was hidden, but her legs were visible from the knee down. “She had to sit there all day,” Charles says. “In the window, modelling sheer pantyhose.” He stood guard outside, across the street so that Viola would not notice him. He describes how she used to cross her shapely legs neatly, at the ankle. She would stay perfectly still, for fifteen minutes at a time, as people milled past. Then abruptly she would change pose, startling shoppers, sending some leaping backward in fright and others rushing forward in excitement. “Ye Gods- it moved!” imitates Charles, with eyes wide. He chuckles to himself. “Cor, what a looker,” he says.
When my mother was 13, Charles was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study salmon farming in Canada. He was away three months. Viola, who had never had to drive, sat her licence test the week after he left. She had never been left on her own before. Charles made all the decisions and paid all the bills. My mother was moody the entire time he was away. She did not talk to her two sisters or Viola. She cried on her bed with her dog Becky because she hated everyone and nothing was fair. One afternoon, on the way to visit her mother Iris in Woolston, Viola lost control of the car and slammed into a stone bridge by the Heathcote River. My mother and her sisters sat stunned in the back seat of the Vanguard while Viola cried.
There is a photo of my grandmother which my grandpa keeps on the wall. In it Viola is atop a sand dune, standing amongst the tall tussock grass in a structured one piece bathing suit. The photo is taken from further down the dune and the camera looks up at Viola, framing her against the clear sky. She has her hand resting on her head, elbow out, in a saucy pose which somehow looks natural and unselfconscious. She looks into the camera with a half smile, her eyes squinting a little in the glare of the sun. Viola always scoffs when we look at this photo. “It wasn’t my idea, I didn’t want to do it,” she says, “Charles was always taking photos of me. I can’t think why.”
Grandpa Charles blames himself. “Why did I call the ambulance?” he despairs. “Now she will never come home. I gave her up. I should have been able to cope. I should have been stronger.” Every day he makes the forty-minute trip from Belfast to the hospital to sit with Viola. He does not like to make eye contact with the other inmates. “She doesn’t belong in here,” he mutters under his breath, “she’s not like them.” The nurses like Charles.
“What a charming and devoted husband,” they tell Viola,
“you are very lucky.”
“Charles is having an affair,” Viola tells me in a conspirator’s whisper, “it is just awful.” The nurse gives me a look over Viola’s head and I understand that this is today’s recurring theme. “I have evidence,” Viola announces, “Charles carries a water bottle, you see, and so does the lady doctor down the corridor.” She shakes her head. “It is just awful, you have no idea.” When it is time to leave, I find a nurse to let me out of the ward.
“One way street here,” he jokes as he gently restrains a tiny old woman who is trying to slip unnoticed through the exit with me. I check that the door is securely fastened behind me and walk briskly out into the street.
My mum tells me that Viola grew up on Matlock Street, in Woolston, a working class suburb of Christchurch. Her parents, Iris and Jack, rented a 1920’s bungalow with bay windows, a claw foot bath and a large copper out the back. They could not afford to buy. My mother remembers making the trip at night to the outside toilet, freezing even during the summer months. Viola’s father was 30 years older than her mother. He had been a friend of her father, and was well into his 70s by the time Viola’s younger brothers, Cleeve and Bill, were born. He did not work for most of Viola’s life and money was very tight. Jack lived to be 100 and Viola’s mother Iris spent the best part of her life caring for him. My mum remembers him sitting in an old armchair in the corner of the living room, muttering gentle sentences which spiralled in incoherent circles. Viola was a placid and obedient child. She walked her younger brothers to school in the Christchurch frost. In primary school Viola caught rheumatic fever. She spent months off school. When she returned after the summer holidays, the principal ordered she be kept back a year and make up what she missed. The new class of younger students called her “dummy” when they thought she could not hear.
Viola had her teeth pulled out when she was in her late twenties. “It is what they did back then,” my aunt Ann tells me, “nobody questioned it.” Ann was only four, but she remembers Viola coming into the house with a scarf tied around her mouth. She had tears rolling down her cheeks because the cold wind hurt her gums.
“I had no idea that you remembered that,” my mother says.
“I didn’t know we were even born then.”
When I was little I used to think that Grandma and I were the same. She was a good girl like me. Throughout my primary school years I felt responsible for my younger brothers. Gleeful children panted up to me in the playground, “Isaac is smoking toe-toe down on the bottom field,” they would say, “what are you gonna do?” A flock of children would follow me down to the field to watch. I tried to look nonchalant, but the sight of the black lighter in his hand would tip me over the edge.
“Isaac, you will get kicked out of school if they catch you doing
that.” I was always earnest, urgent. He would look up from where
he was sitting, surrounded by other boys on the grass bank, a pile of
toe-toe beside them.
A nurse phones Charles early in the morning. “We had to restrain and sedate Viola last night,” she tells him, “she was trying to wake up the other patients to go on a bus trip. She was hitting and swearing at them and we can’t tolerate any behaviour that endangers other patients.” When Charles gets off the phone, he cries.
“Can I see the ring?” Viola asks me. But I don’t understand. “The ring!” she exclaims with frustration. “Lord, Barbara, please don’t tell me he didn’t give her a ring!” Play along, my mum mouths, with warning in her eyes. Viola continues to ask about the dress code, location and date of my wedding all afternoon. She hasn’t been excited about anything for weeks and we are all reluctant to burst her bubble. The doctors have been doing tests and jiggling her medication around.
“It’s a bit of trial and error unfortunately,” they
explain, “but we are confident we can significantly reduce the
A conversation has taken place in my grandparents’ house twice a week for decades. I have witnessed it many times. Charles knows what is coming, but he stubbornly refuses to leave his desk in the corner of the lounge, where he is checking emails on the computer. Viola knows what is coming and she prepares her distressed reaction carefully, but she refuses to turn off the television. The routine is so rehearsed, the parts so well known, that when the music starts their reactions overlap.
“Bloody Coronation Street…”
Viola was in the offices when the fire started. She was seventeen and not long out of school. Her job felt new and exciting. She was careful, filing the paperwork swiftly, in large metal cabinets. She wrote letters to suppliers in tidy handwriting and sent mail order purchases to families who lived in the country. On the morning of the 18th November, 1947, Viola walked from her office through to the department store, collecting fabric to send to a customer in Hanmer Springs. The women in the dress-making department were friendly, they showed her to the material she needed and helped her to fill in the paperwork. Viola was on her way back to her office, the fabric wrapped in brown paper under her arm, when she first heard screaming. She smelt smoke. As she entered the office she was told by a colleague to gather her belongings and make her way to the exit. “There’s a fire in the cellar,” the man said, “nothing serious, there’s no need to panic.” Nobody hurried. Viola put on her coat and collected her bag from her desk. Some of the women applied lipstick as they walked down the fire exit passage to the street. The evacuated staff stood on the footpath and watched the firefighters unravel hoses and extend ladders. Viola chatted to the women next to her. No one was aware that the fire had now reached the furnishing department on the ground floor. Neither smoke nor flames were visible from the street. The staff on the first floor, the dress-making and accounting departments, had not been evacuated.
The street went quiet as a loud explosion blew out two of the building’s windows. This was the first external sign that anything was amiss, but within minutes the entire department store was alight. The firefighters, called out to a cellar fire, were not equipped with long enough ladders to reach up to the first floor. Hours later, Viola was told that all Ballantynes staff were to assemble at the army barracks to be counted. The heads of department stood in different sections of the hall with rolls and called out names. Some of the departments had only one or two people, some had none. Viola did not go home. She wandered through the city streets, trying to forget the screams. At her home in Woolston, Viola’s mother sat by the radio waiting for news. The smoke from the fire had been seen all over Christchurch. She drank whiskey. Viola’s father stood outside by the front gate in the dark. They waited. The newsreader said, “41 dead.”
“I couldn’t talk to my parents about anything,” my mother tells me. “I left home when I was 19. I didn’t even tell them, I just moved out.”
“Why?” I ask.
The doctors’ report states that Viola needs more social interaction. “We have noticed that she is much happier when she is interacting with the nurses, or the other patients,” the doctor explains. “Of course there are other factors; the scan showed some brain shrinkage so we can not rule out dementia or Alzheimer’s. But she seems to enjoy the company in the hospital.” Viola’s younger brother Bill visits her regularly for the first time in years. They talk about their childhood, a small oasis of clarity in Viola’s brain. Bill teases her. He tells us how she used to steal apples from the neighbour’s orchard, and then sprint back through the hole in the hedge with the neighbour shouting after her.
“That doesn’t sound like me,” Viola says, smiling.
“Shove them both in an old folk’s home,” my uncle-in-law says. We are sitting around the dining room table having a cold lunch, ham and potato salad. We are atop the Cashmere Hills and the view through the french doors looks out over all of Christchurch. I stare at him.
“What?” I say.
After two months in K1, Viola begins to stabilise. She no longer imagines spiders crawling up her walls in a thick black mass. Nor does the tiger return to smother her with its immense weight. She is allowed to go home to Tisch Place with Charles. The doctors warn us that the drugs can only stabilise her temporarily, we have to be prepared for when she goes bad again. Viola looks forward to Christmas, at home, with her family.
Viola is very lively when my Aunt Ann and I arrive, laden with presents and groggy from the long car journey. She greets us at the door with a whoop and a holler. “Charles, they’re here!” She immediately launches into tales of her week.
“Watch out,” Aunt Ann whispers, “Viola’s on P,
she’s practically tap dancing.” We have never known Viola
to have so much energy, she is sharp and forceful and nimble in her
movements. She seems to be more enthusiastic than she has been in
We have finished Christmas dinner and we are all lounging about the living room feeling full and sleepy. Grandma and Grandpa are seated together on the couch, watching my brothers and cousins play cricket on the lawn. Grandpa pats Grandma’s hand. “You should go and have a lie down,” he says.
“No thank you,” Viola says firmly.
Grandma Viola was my first smile. It is a story I have grown up hearing. Grandma was giving me a bath. I was mostly stubby little limbs back then and I was flailing and thrashing about in an erratic fashion. Viola was talking and singing to me over the bath water and out of nowhere my little square head cracked into a huge smile. “You were so good with her Viola,” says my mum. “She wouldn’t smile for anyone else, just you.”
Martha Hardy-Ward is based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is completing her BA in film at Victoria University this year. She is interested in many forms of writing including scriptwriting and creative non-fiction. She completed a creative non-fiction paper with the International Institute of Modern Letters earlier this year. ‘Viola’ is a non-fiction piece about her grandmother.
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