One dark but dry night, in confusion, I find myself out on the large lawn between the hospital and the main road. Everything is grey and misty. Shadowy figures drift around. I’m not even sure if they exist. One nears me. “We help each other,” he says and wanders nebulously away, not helping me at all.
Instead, he deepens my confusion. These shadowy figures – are they living human beings or are they ghosts of patients past? If they’re here to help me, why don’t they help me?
It is about this time when the family doctor says something to my mum which appalls and distresses her – and me, when she tells me about it later. “Well, Mrs Prospero, at least you have three other children.”
A week’s leave
I’m deemed well enough to be allowed out for a week on what they call ‘leave.’ It makes it sound like a sort of holiday. At least I’m not walking the luxury lino and bare floorboards of Mercia Ward.
At home a letter is waiting for me. It’s from Silver Satin:
“Dear Mr Prospero, I regret that having taken medical advice, Silver Satin plc are unable to continue to employ you and therefore terminate your contract with effect from….
We wish you a speedy recovery and good luck in your future career.
With both Em and Caitlin now married, the most convenient place for me to sleep is in their former shared bedroom at the front of Mom’s and Pop’s house.
The curtains are a kind of orange colour. The sodium streetlamps outside are also orange. The reinforcing of orange upon orange conspires to prevent me sleeping by impersonating the fires of hell. For the whole of that week and for some time afterwards, I feel sure that if I allow myself to sleep, I will die.
Over and over again I wake up, terrified, just as I’m about to drop off.
A stroll at dusk
I remain confused and unsteady. I don’t know how long I’ve felt this way, but it seems like it’s forever. One evening I go out for a stroll in the atmospheric, magical time that is dusk.
Wandering along the back alley where a decade earlier my father taught me to ride my bike, I’m in something of a daze, questioning, searching my soul for reasons. What do all the things I’ve experienced mean, why have I had to suffer like this, did I really meet God?
It sticks out from the confusion as something real and concrete, as solid as a Rock of Gibraltar in a murky sea.
Some very odd things are happening to me.
The smoke ring
I survey the early evening sky and see something else odd: a circular ring of cloud very high above my head. It’s a carefully blown, perfect smoke ring. I slowly spin 360 degrees on the spot looking up towards it. There’s no doubt about it – It’s directly above my head. It’s a bit larger than the Moon. It’s the only object visible so far in the evening sky.
What does it mean? It’s yet another mystery. Is it a halo? Does this mean I’ve been beatified, promoted from sinner to saint? Is it just an unusual cloud, or is it some sort of sign, perhaps from God?
My conclusion is that God has placed it in the sky as a reminder that he is always here for me.
I want to know God. I ask Mom if I can bring the huge leather-bound family Bible back to the ward after my one week of leave. She gives me the go-ahead. It’s a King James version, full of incredible, soaring, poetic language. I need answers. Will I find them in it?
Myself and two other guys on the ward take turns to read from it and discuss faith and belief, trying to work out which faith is true. I didn’t know. It’s a Catholic Bible from a Catholic home, but Catholicism hasn’t taught me much.
One of the other guys feels that the right faith is either the Christian Scientists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also thinks that the ‘number of the Beast’, 666, refers to the police.
Perhaps a policeman standing on his head.
Mom helps me in another way… More than any psychiatrist up to this point. Dr Maddun had said I was suffering hypomania, which I’d never heard of, but Mom said, “You’ve had a nervous breakdown.”
Ah! A diagnosis that I can understand! What is happening to me is what happens to people when they have a breakdown! Somehow, this helps my understanding a little. Thank you Mom.
It’s a fact that while suffering these conditions, even atheists sometimes have religious experiences. I have to say that, looking back, God has had his hand on me every step of the way. How easily I could’ve died on railway lines, motorways and in lots of other places.
Somehow I am holding onto life. By a thread, perhaps.