The terrible atmosphere at home made escape to college even more pressing. I’d passed my ‘A’ levels and secured a place on the Foundation Course at Bath Academy of Art, which was located in the pretty medieval village of Corsham in Wiltshire. It appeared to be a world away from West Yorkshire and that’s what I desperately wanted.

However before leaving there were three months to live through in a cramped bungalow with a silent brooding father. I am sure he was looking forward to my leaving as much as I was.
During those weeks I did have a pretty serious diversion. I met a trainee nurse at a party. She was lovely, different and her own person. I fell for her pretty quick.
Sue had left school and was already embarked on her career. She was training to be a nurse, a mental health nurse at the hospital Stanley Royd in Wakefield, where co-incidentally I’d managed to land a summer job and where my granddad had worked as a male nurse most of his life.

It wasn’t hard to get a job there, they were desperate for help. Not many teenagers would choose to spend their summer holiday before college wiping old men’s bums and all the other similar unpleasantly personal services which required serious scrubbing during and after the shift.
‘Shit shoveling’ as it is technically described, was basically the ‘skill’ required for the job. But somehow that and caring for the sick seemed to run in the family and it was a sure-fire cure for nail biting.

Stanley Royd stood behind high spiked railings, it was a Victorian institution in every sense; daunting black and grim like a prison, which it really had been for the incarceration of those unfortunate to be mentally rather than physically ill.
It’s name even sounded like some Dickensian nut house. It was steeped in local stigma, where for a hundred years mentally ill relatives who’d ‘gone funny’ were dumped out of sight and forgotten. The buildings stood black and brooding across an expanse of green lawn and mature trees, like a shadow or a whisper, hidden from view.

My granddad had worked as a charge nurse on a ‘lock-up’ ward, long before Largactil (known then as the liquid cosh in the trade) had been introduced. His ward was full of the violently insane. I have often thought what a hell hole it must have been when he worked there.
But never once did I hear him complain or even talk about it. The only connection with the place being for me that as a child with a propensity for being sensitive to smells, I remember him coming homefrom work with a smell on him, like a noxious whiff of putrefied rat; like dead air and sadness.

College and escape beckoned, but it was eight weeks away the day I spent my first of my summer job on a geriatric ward of elderly and demented men.
Sharing days with those poor old souls, trying to communicate, taking them to the toilet, changing their dressings and stinking sheets came as an extra-education that I’d never expected.

My first job in the morning along with the other staff, usually just one qualified member of staff, was to get them out of bed and changed for the day. Peeling back the sheets was the most unpleasant thing as they were often soiled and sodden with pee. It took some getting used to, talk about smelling salts!

But it gave me a precious insight into the working life of my grandfather. For 35 years, day after day he’d been locked away with these unfortunate lost ghosts who were generally in a worst state than my old men.
During that summer, my respect for him and for the staff on my ward, some of who were real saints, grew with every depressing shit-soiled day. But I also saw the other side; I saw physical and mental cruelty doled out by a few sadistic so-called ‘nurses’, those who saw defenseless old men as inhuman and treat them as such.

I grew up quickly in those few weeks, witnessing as I did all sides of human nature. I saw true selfless human goodness at work and real wickedness too and in the patients I saw the complete collapse of the human condition, and in several often after years of festering confusion, institutionalized limbo and living with a decay both mental and physical.
It impressed on me that my own youth would pass all too quickly and that it wouldn’t necessarily be just my body that would age. It gave me a great sense of the passage of time in a human life. On the ward existed in a kind of shadow world the embodiment of what we choose not to face.

One of the old men had a real impact on me. He must have been in his seventies; it was difficult to tell. He had a genteel face and soft hands with the long white fingers and soft palms, (which I held sometimes when I had to help him to the toilet), of a country vicar.
As he sat on the toilet in the doorless cubicle conversely I could picture him in the pulpit and could see him at the door of the church in his dog collar chatting with members of his congregation. It was interesting that it was possible to have a sense of who and what the men had been in their lives before illness had immersed them in a chartless fog.
The vicar as I couldn’t help think of him, had become completely demented and couldn’t do a thing for himself. But unlike most of the others on the ward he wasn’t alone. His equally elderly and genteel wife came and sat with him every afternoon without fail.
In contrast she was on the ball and obviously the bond between her and him was as complete as the wedding ring on her finger. But sadly he didn’t recognize her. It was touching to see them together, there was so much love there.
His wife would sit at the bedside throughout the long hot afternoons of visiting time when time seemed to stand still in the ward. She stroked his thin scratched hands while he dozed or even whilst with milky eyes he’d look at her with a furious curiosity.
Every day she brought him oranges and bottles of stout and bags of wrapped sweets and put them in his drawer to have later. But I doubt if he ever had any of the gifts she brought, as they’d end up in the office later depending on who was working that night. She must have thought he was enjoying the things she brought him, but I saw what happened and where they went and wanted to say something. But then I thought that at least it was something for her thinking he’d enjoyed the stout and the mint humbugs she brought. She didn’t need to know.

He was a rare case, having his wife visit. Most of the inmates didn’t have visitors. They’d been long since abandoned or unknowingly survived friends and siblings who’d passed before them, as outside years had passed and the world had changed.
Some of the old men had had lives that were simply tragic, awful accidents of history and circumstance. It was as though their stories had been locked away with them, too awful for society to bear.
Several had started out in life from being babies born around the time of the First World War with congenital illnesses like syphilis. A festering disease which their fathers’ unwittingly contracted in French brothels, then passed on to their innocent wives, lovers and their babies back in Blighty after the war.
Those poor kids had been born with madness in their blood from the start and condemned to a life insane and apart. There was no treatment then and as their illness became obvious they’d been institutionalized.
Several of them on the ward had spent over half a century shut away, kept alive- the real living dead, zombies in effect with no future, no past and no hope. I felt so very sorry for them.
It’s awful to admit but some of them were virtually inhuman. They were monstrous, shrieking and incontinent, like freakish birds. They’d grab and scratch you with their bony sharp shit brown nailed fingers and you’d feel if you got scratched you’d be poisoned. I found them very frightening at first.

And as an ‘nursing assistant’ I really knew nothing and wasn’t told or shown much above the basics. Trying to get one of the syphillitic old men to the toilet alone with no other help as they fought me, thrashing and slashing all the way, was like being in a horror movie- but the first days, those kind of jobs were all part of the initiation! All part of the ‘hardening process’ essential for your own sanity.

Later at home after the shift, I had to get it out of my system, so I’d have a bath to rid myself of the same smell as that granddad brought home and then I turned to drawing what I’d experienced in a sketch book, attempting to convey not just how it had been but how it had felt.


John Sunderland

New York, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Installment twenty of my personal passage. After school working in a mental hospital was real further education before college

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