Copyright © 2016, Riis Marshall and Turfhill Court Press
Sunnyvale—a lovely name—conjuring up visions of views of sun-drenched green and pleasant hills stretching to the horizon, cultivated fields, pastures and orchards outlined by ancient hedgerows and dry-stone walls. Sunnyvale—lovely—that is, until one utters its full name: the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum. Perched high on a hill above the village, it was opened in 1851, a grand and grim—likely its builders would have preferred ‘imposing and stern’ as better choices of adjectives—monument to Victorian architecture and the humane treatment of lunatics. Until its closure in 1962 it was at the forefront of therapies for the treatment and occasionally cures for the entire range of conditions of madness: malarial therapy, barbiturate induced deep sleep therapy, insulin shock therapy, cardiazol shock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, transorbital lobotomy, compulsory sterilization and therapeutic nihilism. None of it worked, of course, certainly not from the inmates’ perspectives. On the other hand, from the perspective of the general public it worked after a fashion: the lunatics were safely, if not always quietly, housed in the asylum; out of sight, out of mind, if you’ll pardon a rather dark and tasteless pun.
Following its closing it was surrounded by a high chain-link fence to which were affixed, at regular intervals, imposing signs warning people of the danger of entering and ordering them to KEEP OUT. Over the years, trees and shrubs that once graced carefully tended gardens turned into a jungle of sorts: growing higher and higher, thicker and thicker, wilder and wilder. Weeds appeared between the bricks of drives and pavements, and these, too, grew higher, thicker and wilder, forming an undergrowth to compliment the faux jungle canopy.
Today rather than being treated to lobotomies, former inmates, now more politically correctly described as ‘patients’, ‘residents’, ‘service recipients’ and sometimes even ‘customers’ are treated with something called ‘care in the community’. Whether this works any better than the older remedies is still a matter of debate.
Two facts are known about the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum of today. First, it has been purchased by an anonymous property developer who soon, quite soon actually, has planning permission to convert it into a large number of posh apartments to be sold to incomers at obscenely high prices. Second, it is haunted and during hours of darkness the screams of long-dead inmates can be heard echoing through wards, treatment rooms, operating theatres, padded cells and corridors. When local people are queried, none acknowledges she or he has actually heard the screams, but each knows somebody who most assuredly has.
It was a summer of discovery: Gordon, James and Robert were eleven years old and all would have turned twelve before returning to school in the autumn. They were old enough, now, to be allowed to roam far beyond the immediate confines of their gardens, the commons and playing fields for sometimes the entire day without too many parental queries about their whereabouts. Something else was happening: they were confronted by an almost indescribably vague feeling, not even felt so much as subtly sensed in the pit of the stomach, that there was something more to girls than their being the convenient objects of teasing and absurd practical jokes.
It was also the summer they decided it was time to find weaknesses in the fences surrounding Sunnyvale, create a convenient, boy-sized hole hidden from the approach by trees and shrubs, screw up their courage and engage in some ambitious exploration—well, during daylight anyhow.
Thus through most of July they made many trips up the hill, through their hole in the fence, through the jungle and into a ground-level door allowing them access to storage rooms and kitchens. They moved, cautiously at first then more boldly, up from the kitchens to the main entrance hall where they established a sort of base camp. The hall was a high, grand, four-storey, wood-panelled affair with an imposing front door, stained glass skylight and an even more imposing wide staircase that led, as they discovered during their explorations, to equally grandly panelled offices, libraries, meeting rooms and dining rooms where presumably managers and staff, although likely not patients, dwelled. Almost all books, papers, equipment of all kinds and soft furnishings were gone but desks, tables, chairs, cabinets, coat trees and assorted bits of furniture remained. Some were intact, some tumbled and broken, all now smothered in layers of dust and cobwebs. A few table and standard lamps were found among this wreckage but these failed to work because of an absence of electricity.
Most windows were unbroken and these, too, were covered in dust although they admitted enough light to allow investigations of the seemingly endless number of rooms and apparent miles of labyrinthine corridors. Thus from their base camp, on each visit the boys ranged deeper and deeper into the bowels of the huge building. And thus during their adventures there emerged an organization of sorts. Gordon: their de facto leader came up with ideas; James: their facilitator turned these ideas into practical realities and Robert: their mechanic addressed any technical issues hindering these schemes.
They enlarged the hole in the fence so they could enter and exit without even stooping and Robert found an impressive ring of mouldy keys, one of which fitted the lock on the front door. Now they could enter the entrance hall directly from the forecourt without their having to traverse the gloomy halls linking the kitchen entrance to the rest of the building.
Had they been a bit older and wiser in the ways of personal objectives, theories of organizational dynamics and group behaviour they would have noted the clear distinctions between the almost opulent splendour of the richly panelled entrance hall, main staircase, stained glass skylight, generous offices and dining rooms, and the stark, nay dismal, wards, treatment rooms, operating theatres, day rooms and cells, all painted in several gloomy shades of green—lighter for upper walls and ceilings, darker for lower walls and floors—where inmates were protected behind locked, iron-barred doors.
Throughout July and the first half of August they sometimes discussed the possibility of a venture into Sunnyvale after dark; and not only after dark but at midnight. And as they considered this, they thought about the possibility of daring some girls to meet them there: their last big adventure of the summer before—ugh!—returning to school.
Arrangements were surreptitiously complete: Margaret, Sheila and Ann, also eleven going on twelve were the three most likely to accept the dare. On a Saturday afternoon all six asked permission to stay over at a friend’s house for one night: Gordon at James’ house, Margaret at Sheila’s house, et al; it is highly likely this ruse was practised equally successfully in Athens in 220BC. They were each to bring either a torch or the sort of battery lantern one takes on camping trips and something to drink, preferably but not necessarily alcoholic. In days gone bye at least one would have brought some cigarettes but today this would be considered gauche. The girls were to walk up the hill separately from the boys—in order not to attract too much attention, of course—and whichever group arrived first would sit around the big table they had dusted off and placed in the middle of the entrance hall, and wait for the others. Everything was in order.
Well—not quite. The boys had a further plan they had not communicated to the girls. They arrived well ahead of them to arrange their little surprise. They assembled in a first floor meeting room next to the landing. Each had brought a white bed sheet and Robert, the technician, a pair of scissors. They cut eyeholes in the sheets then draped them over their heads and made adjustments to ensure they could see adequately in the dim light. Then they grasped a fold in each hand and practised walking silently around the room while waving their arms about: trying to look as much like diaphanous, disembodied spirits as possible. When they were comfortable with this, they added gentle but malevolent WhoooOOOoooOOOooo!s to the ensemble, trying to make them sound as frightening and haunting as possible.
They were ready. Gordon, as leader, crept quietly out onto the landing to see if the girls had arrived. They had not but he was pleased to see sufficient moonlight shining through the skylight to make it possible for them to work their evil. Their plan was to float silently, in single file, down the main staircase and parade around the periphery of the hall working closer and closer to girls until they were noticed, ideally with a scream of terror, then they would wave their sheets about, emit a series of WhoooOOOoooOOOooo!s, make one more full circuit of the room as they increased their pace to a run then peel off and disappear into the main corridor leading back into the blackness of the building.
Gordon stayed on the landing, leaning on the balustrade looking down. The girls arrived a few minutes later, waving torches around as they set up their camping lantern on the big table, arranged some chairs and made themselves comfortable. They spoke to each other quietly so what reached the landing was not conversation but a few giggles and girlish murmur.
It was time. They donned their sheets, looked at each other through their eyeholes and stepped out onto the landing: Gordon leading, James next and Robert following—three white sheets, not so much glowing white as mist-like lighter patches in the surrounding darkness. Gordon glanced behind him at the other two and moved across the landing to the top of the stairs. They stepped off and began their slow descent to the lower landing. So far, so good.
Then there on this lower landing the wheels came off. As they passed the tall, ornately framed mirror that graced the landing, Gordon glanced and saw not the three white sheets he expected to see but four. He shrieked—an authentic scream of terror, threw off his sheet and ran down the stairs as fast as he could without stumbling. Margaret looked up when she heard his scream and pounding footsteps as he flew down the last flight of steps and she, too, screamed, stood up, knocking over her chair and followed him across the hall and out the front door. Before his sheet had come fully to rest on the floor James looked in the mirror and saw three sheets rather than two. His cry was even louder than Gordon’s if that were possible and by the time he reached the front door Sheila was immediately behind him. A thoroughly bewildered Robert looked, not in the mirror but behind him at the fourth sheet and reached the bottom of the stairs just as Ann was flying out the door. He ran as never before and caught up with the five as they were queuing at the hole in the fence.
Two weeks later the six returned to school without ever having spoken, in pairs or as a group, about their adventure. Perhaps the boys, as individuals, thought about that fourth white sheet; if this were the case, none ever talked about it. They never returned to collect their torches, lanterns, drinks or sheets, nor did they discuss whether grown-ups had ever noticed the absence of these items.
The trees, bushes and weeds have grown even higher around the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum. The promised property development has yet to happen—perhaps later. Local people still affirm they hear screams emanating from the building around midnight—especially during full moons. Some have ventured close enough to stand at the fence guarding the entrance and gaze across the approach to the big front door. A few swear it looks as though it now hangs partway open.
All things considered, it was an interesting summer: a proper coming of age. One question remains though: did the boys ever figure out what it was about girls that made them feel insecure, puzzled and with that unexplained tingling in the pits of their stomachs? Well, that will just have to remain another tale for another time.