I don’t want to go and visit Kat again but I’d said I would. She repulses me, with her fleshy arms and stale sex perfume. I feel bad for thinking this way about my friend. I buy her a pack of cigarettes at the kiosk on the way in. Stand in front of the display of overpriced flowers which are swamped in shiny lurid wrapping paper. I’m not sure that flowers are appropriate for a mad person. The nurse confiscated the chocolates I bought last week and told me that Kat was on a calorie-controlled eating plan. My eyes sweep the wall of glossy fashion and gossip magazines. The soft toys are ridiculous, all squashed up on the shelf but I take a brown kiwi down and check the price tag. Twenty-eight dollars is a joke. I am thinking way too much about this and I settle on a flame-coloured begonia plant, in a plastic pot, with a single purple ribbon around it. Give the kiosk lady my money and head down the glass corridor that links the buildings. It is starting to rain. The double doors at the end say ward twenty-one. At high school we used to make jokes about ending up here.
‘I’m here to see Kathryn Stirling,’ I say to the person at the reception desk. He looks a bit startled and I get the feeling I should know something that I don’t. I put the begonia and the cigarettes down on the counter.
‘Hold on one moment,’ he says, and pushes a buzzer on the wall. ‘Take a seat.’
‘The cat knows.’ Kat had said this over and over last time I visited and cackled each time. At first I thought she was referring to herself but the more times she repeated it the more I started to imagine an omnipotent feline. Her lipstick was garish pink and some had smeared on her teeth. I wanted to get up and run out of the room. Last time we saw one another was just over a year ago, at the airport at her farewell. She had applied for three countries in her application, Finland being her first choice, but she’d wound up getting China. It was almost the end of sixth form when she went.
There had been lots of letters the first few months; they all arrived in those thin pale blue and red Aerogrammes so you needed to open them really carefully or they’d rip and you’d lose some of the writing. Telling all about the strangeness of China and the difficulty of learning the alphabet. How they all sat in rows in high school and about the activities her host family organised for her every weekend. Always written in fine black ink. The letters had slowed down, then stopped completely.
Kat had told me about one of the nurses and how much she fancied him. They had amazing sex last night. She was going into great detail. She hadn’t showered. I didn’t know whether to believe her. At Auckland airport they had put her in handcuffs and escorted her from the terminal after she took all her clothes off in Arrivals.
A female nurse had come into the room with the medication.
‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘Nice to see you have a visitor, Kathryn.’
‘Fuck you,’ said Kat. ‘I’ve run out of cigarettes.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ the nurse said. ‘Why don’t we get you dressed? You could take your friend outside and get some fresh air.’
‘The cat knows,’ Kat said again and she’d heaved herself out of the armchair in the corner of the room. It was small in there and she looked too large, cumbersome. She began taking off her nightie. I looked away.
When she was dressed we went outside and sat on a damp wooden bench in the large circular courtyard. The walls were high and silvery grey ivy was creeping up the brick section at the top. We were the only people out there, except for a large, bearded man sitting across from us who had his eyes shut. I wrapped my cardigan around myself and folded my arms over the top of it. It was sunny but the sun no longer had any warmth in it because it was May and it was still early in the day. Visiting hours were between ten am and twelve. It was strange to be sitting here beside my friend, whom I hardly recognised. She pulled up her skirt, exposing her thighs. I was not sure what to say to her so I said nothing. She went over to the man sitting on the opposite bench and I heard her asking him for a cigarette. Then a lighter. I noticed she still had the same slow confident walk she had before she went away and felt a bit comforted that one recognisable quality remained.
She sat back down beside me, blowing giant smoke rings out into the morning, in the direction of the man. He growled at her and she laughed.
I made myself ask her something.
‘How long will you be staying here for?’ and the moment I’d spoken thought it was a dumb question, it was not a holiday camp for fuck’s sake, Kat did not have a choice. Her family had her committed because she was insane.
‘The cat knows,’ she said, winking theatrically at the man. He was ignoring her now, picking at the rubber on the soles of his sneakers.
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘Those drugs that bitch nurse gave me make me horny,’ she said. ‘Fancy having sex?’
I said that I didn’t think it was a good idea, that I had things to do.
She asked me to bring in cigarettes tomorrow. I told her I would.
When I’d got home, I took a shower, feeling the need to wash her off me somehow. It was the university holidays and I was back at my parents’ house. In the living room my mother told me that Pete called and he wanted to see me. Last time he came to see me was in March at university orientation. He had found his way around alright, had sex with my hostel roommate. I caught them at it after we’d been at the pub. What felt the worst was that he and I, both virgins, had decided to wait to have sex, to see how the year living apart went first.
My father was watching the rugby on the sky sports channel, in his usual position on the old leather sofa which has a big sag in the end from the weight of him sitting there so often.
‘Did you go and see Kathryn?’ he asked, not taking his eyes off the television. The volume was turned right up because he is deaf in one ear.
‘Yes,’ I said loudly.
‘Be a good friend,’ my father said. ‘It could be you in there you know.’
I fought an urge to pull the plug out of the wall. I went into the kitchen instead and stood at the bench, looking out the window at the sea.
It is cold in the waiting room. I get a drink of water from the blue plastic water dispenser and re-tie the ribbon around the begonia. Something isn’t right. The nurse who had taken the chocolates off me appears through the set of double doors past the reception desk. She is wearing a brightly-coloured blouse with cherries on it with but she looks serious as she walks over to me. She tells me to take a seat.
‘We have some unfortunate news,’ she says. ‘Kathryn’s family asked us to inform you as I understand you are a good friend. She has been moved to a secure unit.’
‘What happened?’ I say.
‘There was a serious sexual attack involving Kathryn and a male client on Thursday evening.’
‘Shit,’ I say.
‘Allegedly she followed him into his room and assaulted him,’ the nurse says. ‘The police were called and we are cooperating with them, of course. It’s a highly sensitive issue, you understand.’
After that first visit, Pete had turned up at the front door, his hair still wet from his surf. We went for a walk on the beach because my parents were home and the television was on.
‘Guess you’ve heard about Kat then,’ I said. He didn’t say anything and when I looked across at him, I knew. I don’t know how, but I did.
‘I have to tell you something,’ he said. ‘I had sex with her. Before she went away. At her leaving do, on the beach. It only happened once. We were both wasted. I’m sorry.’ He tried to give me a hug but I stepped away from him. He accepted this, without surprise. All I could think about were those pale blue and red Aerogrammes, with my address written in fine black ink. I left him behind and carried on walking along the wet sand. The tide was going out and had exposed the black rocks which were dotted with reddish brown woolly tufts of seaweed and mussel shells. The wind had shifted onshore and the sea was choppy with white caps.
At the clinic, the psychologist tells me that Kat is on antimanic medication to help her stabilise. She is currently not a threat to herself or to anyone else. When I go into the room I find her sitting on a chair, leaning on the wall. The room doesn’t have any windows. Her hair looks greasy and a few strands hang over her face. I stand there for a while then I move over to the other chair and pull it closer to hers and sit down. I try to say something but my eyes are filling up and my tongue feels thick and fat and the words jam in my throat. She doesn’t move or look at me. I take her hand and hold it in mine. From time to time I squeeze it until she takes it away.
It is a long drive back to my parents. When I pull into the driveway the dog runs out and jumps up at the car then runs onto the lawn. I close my eyes and lean my head on the steering wheel. I make my way down the side of the house to my father’s wine cellar under the deck and take a bottle of red wine from the bottom rack. Go up to my bedroom and look in the wardrobe. I stand on a chair to reach the box of letters. There are lots of old letters from friends but Kat’s are easy to find, all the same, a pale blue bundle with a rubber band around them. I sit on the floor, leaning my back against my bed and open the wine. I start to read.
Everybody works so crazily hard here. I’ll never moan about Ms Donovan’s art history lessons again. I can’t understand a thing anyone is saying and spend the whole day smiling and nodding and wondering what the hell is going on. Should be an interesting year.
My host family are so weirdly polite and formal. I’m sharing a room with my host sister who is a year younger than me and totally straight. Her favourite colour is lilac. Fucking lilac.
Tonight I got home twenty minutes late for dinner because I went round to a friend’s place after school to do homework. So much homework. I finally have a friend! My host father got mad. I think they were scared something might have happened to me. It’s hard to know when I can’t understand what they’re saying.
I dreamed about you. We walked on the beach at night and it was high tide and the sea was huge and loud and things were okay.
It is dark by the time I finish reading. I can hear music. There is a band playing tonight at the local. I walk up the road, turning my skirt over at the waistband a couple of times to make it shorter. Pay the ten dollar cover charge at the door and go to the bar. Most people are through in the other room, watching the band. A man in a blue jersey is sitting on a stool at the bar reading the newspaper and he looks up when I ask the bar girl for a pint. His eyes are almost the same blue as his jersey.