By Nina Rapi.
Justine was under 24-hour watch. We, her flatmates plus assorted, freaked-out friends and lovers, had agreed that that was the only way to stop her from being sectioned. We considered handing her over to the medical authorities to be zombified, as the worst betrayal imaginable. We knew she would soon come round and everything would go back to how it was. But three weeks later, and while Tzina, flatmate-on-rota duty, was trying hard to engage and keep Justine’s attention on things other than jumping out of the window, smashing the smashed TV set, setting fire to her parents’ house or swallowing a bottle of downers, the rest of us were having an urgent conference with the agenda : ‘What shall we do with Justine?’
Lou, Tzina and I were convinced there was nothing wrong with Justine. She was just over-excited with the news that she could join La Luna Travelling Circus, the best in Europe. The fact that her professor dad didn’t approve of her dropping out of college for something ‘so frivolous’ was stressing her out. Because when daddy didn’t approve of Justine’s behaviour — which was often — Justine fell to pieces. And she was now falling to pieces.There was, therefore, only one solution: to persuade daddy that all Justine ever wanted was to join a travelling circus.
There was a problem. Her dad refused to talk to any of us and was adamant that Justine was ill and needed to go back home to be looked after. He had in fact tried to take her back home but we wouldn’t let him in. He banged and banged on the door, kept calling Justine’s name but gave up only when he saw Justine lean out of the living room window, looking serene and saying: ‘Go home, dad, I’m fine, don’t worry, go home, I’m fine dad, go home dad, I’m fine dad, go home dad.’ He thought it odd that there was a lot of repetition in her utterance but was rather pleased that she looked so calm. The last time she had visited them in Richmond, she was like a mad woman and had tried to set the garden shed on fire, ‘to purify the air’ as she had put it. So, daddy was both the source of the problem and its solution. But daddy was out of reach just now. What else could we do?
‘We have to carry on protecting her, that’s all there is to it’, said Lou, the baby butch of the flat. She knew Justine the longest. They had met at high school, in Lagos, Nigeria. Lou a fully-fledged dyke from the age of thirteen and a rebel; Justine forever bi, forever wanting both/and, forever a pleaser. Still, they had enough in common to draw them together. Both full of energy and dreams, both foreigners, both of mixed race and ambivalent sexuality — a mirroring that proved aphrodisiac. They did it anywhere and everywhere for about three months. Then nothing. This turned out to be a pattern for Justine. Three months was the most she could take of any sexual relationship. She then had to flee. But keep her ex-lovers as friends.
Luckily their parents moved back to London at about the same time. Justine went to the LSE because that’s what daddy wanted, Lou became a rock musician because that’s what Lou wanted. Justine too wanted to break daddy’s chains but was now doing all these crazy things we couldn’t fathom.
Lou was right. We had to protect Justine. ‘I second that,’ I said, remembering the students’ union lingo and thinking it sufficiently weighty to use on the occasion.
‘Me too,’ said Patience, Justine’s closest friend from the LSE, ‘we have to stand by her. She needs us.’ We knew Tzina would back us on any joint decision we took. Marie, the newest odd-one-out flatmate, was the problem.
‘I can’t deal with this anymore,’ Marie burst out. She had had enough of Justine-watching and saw nothing wrong with handing her over to her parents to act as they saw fit. And if that included sectioning, well maybe a hospital stay wasn’t such a bad idea. That’s what professionals are for, to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves and ‘let’s face it’, she concluded, ‘Justine can’t take care of herself anymore.’
Marie locked her room even when she went to the toilet. At first, we all felt offended that she didn’t trust us but gradually we realized that it was a compulsive habit we had to accept, along with her straight take on things. Being locked in or out of places was for her after all a normality. She grew up in Hungary at a time when state power was what determined your movements and she had little time for self-inflicted limitations, which is how she saw Justine’s actions. Besides, being a very disciplined and proud Town Clerk of the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, she had a touching faith in British Authorities, including medical ones. She was a stunner though and one of the reasons we accepted her as a flatmate, not to mention the fact she was the only one with a steady income.
Lou and I were looking at Marie as if she were seriously out of order. ‘Oh yes she can take care of herself allright,’ Lou answered, ‘and if she can’t, we can until this stops and it will.’
Judith, Marie’s new lover, begged to differ in her Cassandra-like fashion, all whispers, eyes lowered, body wrapped up by veiny hands. What Judith said was this: ‘There is nothing we can do about Justine. There is no point in us looking for reasons as to why this happened or how we can stop it either. It’s all been decided.’
‘Decided?! By who exactly?’ asked Lou. ‘Who decides whether my friend stays free or not?’ she asked again, more aggressively this time.
Judith didn’t flinch. Aggression never scared her. She had enough calmness for everyone around her. ‘Prophecy No. 13’, she said mysteriously.
‘Come again?’ asked Lou. We looked at each other and we wanted to laugh but didn’t want to insult her, so we kept a straight face. I noticed that Patience looked disturbed but tried to hide it. That surprised me. Disturbed by a ‘prophecy’? But then again, while officially an atheist, she was the most Christian in her upbringing, something that sometimes crept up on her and caught her unaware.
‘Disease of the brain or insanity will prevail in 1980, 1981 until 1988, especially in the three superpowers. And of course that means the USA, Britain and the Soviet Union. This is 1980 and we are in the UK. Clearly, disease of the brain refers to insanity or mental disorder…’
‘Justine is not insane,’ I interrupted, ‘she is just a little overwhelmed by things. She is in shock, that’s all. If only her dad…’
‘…Anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours’, Judith continued undaunted, ‘abuse or dependence on drugs or alcohol, affective or mood disorders, such as depression or manic depression…a sense of hopelessness which can sometimes lead to suicide.’
‘Stop right there,’ Lou said. ‘I don’t believe in prophecies or any of that mumbo-jumbo, ok? Besides, even if, let’s just say, even if that prophecy were right, what has it got to do with Justine losing it a bit? We all lose it a bit now and then, don’t we? I mean…’
‘Will you let me finish?’ Judith cut her off as if disciplining a child. Lou grinned and reluctantly signalled ‘go on’. She was running out of ideas herself as to why Justine was reacting so badly to things.
‘…usually accompanied by inactivity, eating and sleeping problems. It may
alternate with mania, which means increased activity and delusions of grandeur…’
Images of Justine crowning me, herself and Patience as, respectively, the olive-skin queen, the brown-skin queen and the black-skin queen, came flooding back. I dismissed them, the way I had dismissed the crowning then, making a joke out of it. I couldn’t help remembering though that that was the first time I had seen Justine laugh and cry at the same time…Justine never felt black or white and she hated the mixed-race label too the way she hated the bisexual label or indeed any labels at all. Calling herself ‘brown’ was the nearest she’d get to a self-definition regarding skin colour. And even that would be in jest. She considered all identities as shackles. ‘I want to be free from all boxes,’ she’d often say.
It was during the crowning that she told us: ‘I want to be everywhere with everyone at all times. Is that too much to ask?’ I had thought then that this was sheer poetry but now I was wondering. I looked at Patience, who hadn’t said a word since the prophecy was mentioned, and I knew she was thinking similar thoughts.
I had known Justine for three years. I first met her at the student bar, in the basement of St Clements building at the LSE, where I was studying Sociology. What struck me most about her was her burning energy and husky laugh. A week later she moved into our flat. A few days after that, she walzed into my room one afternoon, changed ‘Gloria’ by Pattie Smith that was pumping out of my record player and put on the single ‘Could you be loved’ by Bob Marley. I looked up bemused. I was reading Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. She danced in front of my mirror for a while, then came closer, bent down, took the book away. ‘You don’t need to be reading about revolution,’ she said ‘you can live it,’ and kissed me in the mouth. I had never kissed a woman before. It felt strange, wild and exciting, something I wanted to do again, for sure.
That weekend she invited me to her father’s house. He had got married to a new woman, six months after Justine’s mother, a Haitian dancer, committed suicide. Justine never forgave him for that. She was obsessed with her mother’s memory. ‘She is an Angel guarding over me,’ she’d say and burst out in her husky laugh.
Our affair lasted three months, Justine staying true to her pattern, me learning new dykey, polygamous ways of relating. We stayed good friends. I picked up a bass guitar and joined Lou and her friends for all-night jams. The flat soon changed from mixed straight to dykes only, from mostly students to mostly musicians. Justine was in the middle for a while, sort of sitting on the fence, her favourite position. But now she wanted to be like Lou, Tzina and me and unlike Marie and the rest of the world…
Judith’s words brought me back to the present.
‘And of course it also refers to schizophrenia, which can involve psychotic thought disturbances, along with bizarre behaviour and hallucinations. Now,’ Judith said, looking at her lover Marie, as if to say I was going to back you all along on this, ‘Now, then, hasn’t Justine shown practically every single one of these symptoms in the last few weeks? Shouldn’t we accept the fact that she is seriously unwell, mentally ill in fact, and needs medical care?’
There was silence. Lou, Patience and I looked at each other. ‘Mentally ill’ was not part of our vocabulary. We believed that most sane people were mad and most ‘mad’ people were prophets. Wasn’t Justine making unusual connections between things, seeing things in ways that surprised and delighted us? For us ‘madness’ was a state of mind, not an illness, not a medical condition. A state of mind that took you out of synch with others for a while, showed you things from a different angle and if that got out of hand, it could be changed if your friends stood by you. And we would, come what may.
Still, Justine’s behaviour was getting out of control. She had already smashed plenty of glasses (because she liked the sound they made against the wall, she said), our TV set (because it poisoned our minds) and the door leading to the overflow yard (because there was no exit from there). Still, she’d apologise and fix whatever damage she caused. The rest of the time she would be smiling sweetly and hold the most intense conversations on, say, how it’s possible to love three and four and five people at the same time…Things like that.
On the other hand, how much longer could we keep the 24/7 watch and what if she resisted and we had to restrain her? Could we do that? Could we use force against her? She had already tried to run out of the flat a few times but we had always managed to reason with her to come back. Who were we after all? Her personal police?
The silence was broken by Justine-watching Tzina. She burst into the kitchen, eyes wide with terror. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I must have just drifted off and she must have climbed out of the window. I have no idea how that could have happened, I wasn’t even sleepy, she must have dropped something in my coffee. I’m so sorry.’
She was shaking. We calmed her down, reassuring her that Justine can’t have gone too far and we’d soon find her. We all went out into the street, calling out her name. We split into four units: one, down Camden Hill Road towards High-Street Kensington; the other, up Camden Hill Road towards Notting Hill Gate; the third one towards Kensington Church street; and the fourth one, including me, into any small streets and shops around the area.
Two hours later, we all came back defeated.
Justine had disappeared.
It was only the next day we heard the news, from her father. He was furious with us and blamed us for what had happened. Justine was at St Mary’s hospital. He had her sectioned. She had visited her cousin who had twins. Justine was quite calm and so her cousin had gone to sleep, after dinner, safe in the knowledge that all was well. Apparently, Justine thought that her cousin was a bad mother for leaving her twins alone and unprotected in their room for a whole night. So she made them swallow her sleeping tablets so they could go to heaven to meet her own mother and be looked after properly.
Praise instinct as her cousin woke up startled in the middle of the night, feeling the urge to check on her twins.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nina Rapi is a playwright and short story writer. Her plays and monologues include: Gentle Persuasion, SubVerse, Theatre503; Lovers, Gielgud Theatre, West End Shorts Season; the prize-winning Angelstate; Edgewise, Gate Theatre (staged reading). Earlier work includes the award-winning Ithaka, Riverside studios (staged reading). Nine Traces in a Circle, her first collection of short stories was recently published in Greece. She is now writing a new collection of stories, Out Where? awarded an Arts Council Writing Grant. Nina is also the editor of BRAND Literary Magazine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 20th, 2009.