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Asylum in Wales By James Felix Huggett


The yellow notice warned CCTV in operation in the tall sash window. The dark clouds were reflected in it, leaving the room inside ambiguous. I walked further up the road, keeping an eye on the brown brick buildings. Nobody had bothered to put up a fence; the grey flagstones were separated from the road by an irregular strip of matted grass.

Two women turned the corner from behind a hedge. I stopped to avoid their attention and carefully retrieved a sandwich from my bag. One of those dry affairs of tasteless grain with no mayo for the chicken. They passed me, both looking somewhere down the road.

‘John’s ill again,’ said the woman who may have been pretty, before her wavy hair began to grey.

‘John’s always ill,’ said the other, her cheeks ruddy.

I turned back to the buildings, all that was left of the roofs were twisted wooden boards, their jagged edges hung over the walls. People lived on that road; I could hear young children shrieking from the nearby houses.

On the train from Euston Square, I’d heard a man on his phone, speaking with a cultivated voice.

‘You need to make sure the asset is prepared and discuss with the client what capital you will be investing in it.’ His voice hadn’t matched his Nike trainers, he was more of a waist-up guy who wore a suit jacket with his jeans. I guess he always dressed for Zoom meetings. I’d studied business as a fourth subject in college but had dropped out when I met my classmates. That man wouldn’t have liked those brown buildings; they weren’t the right colour for his portfolio.

I spotted the CCTV as I swallowed the last crust. It was dark, still and downturned, a dead eye which had ended its vigil long ago. I thought of myself hanging there from the grey pillbox watchtower until my neck gave way.

My phone buzzed.

Mum: Hope you arrived ok, make sure you eat and phone me tomorrow x.

I switched my phone off and spotted the entrance. A large section of wall had caved in, both it and the hedges were plastered in anti-climb paint. It was an easy six-foot scramble over the crumbled sill. From this point I could see the houses knotted around the end of the lane, yellow-bricked and neat. They must have used such a colour to differentiate themselves from the dark towers and passageways.

The room I entered was stripped bare, moss had reclaimed the floor and opposite wall. I stepped to the floor and placed each foot with care, not wanting to disturb all that lay undisturbed, and passed where a door had once hung. On one side of the hallway the asbestos tiles had all been blown off the brick wall and had scattered over the floor amongst crumbled fragments. On the other wall they were yellowed and peeling. A barred window at the end of the hall lit the scene; the rest of the light came from the open doorways to what I suppose were bedrooms. I didn’t enter any of them; it felt intrusive to explore the patients’ only haven. The only place where they hadn’t been examined.

The grey cloud brought a fresh wind from the hills. Strangely the grass hadn’t grown in that section, only in sparse and malnourished patches. A few stunted elder trees had grown against the building’s walls, as if they had thought better of growing out in the open. I made my way through another set of hallways that were similarly configured, walking toe to heel. That was until I found what had probably been the dining hall. The ceiling had collapsed in most places and boards of various shades and materials rested between the floor and ceiling, some had pierced the rotten tables and broken the legs off the chairs A desk hung from the floor above, one of its legs caught over the main beam. I turned to backtrack down the hall and saw a red painting on the opposite wall, a man with a round head and those crossed out eyes that kids draw on cartoon animals. h a p p y p i l l s were advertised on a container that sat on a narrow band of flowery wallpaper. Fervent brushstrokes fanned out from where each ear should have been, the paint was thicker here and had dried a darker brown. He looked happy; he had a big grin that was at odds with the tag line:

YOU CAN’T PRESCRIBE A PERSONALITY.

I left that building with no care for the toe to heel approach.

The day was beginning to pass, offering itself up to the February evening. I headed towards the watchtower; its commanding steeple was all I’d seen from the road. There was no weathercock, instead sharp needles of metal pointed in different directions. I passed a pile where no grass or moss had grown. In it were tapes and videos with various names on it: Jacob Cox and Ralph came up a lot in non-joined-up handwriting. There were hundreds of reels of different productions, probably vetted and watered down. The management would have cut out any parts showing strong emotion, nudity, fist fights and swearing. Reforming the story to only record male small talk, grey hallways and boxy IBM machines.

I noticed a few red mask flowers had grown in a brick sill and walked to the doorway of the building, what appeared to have been the assembly room. The wall was shadowy by then, with the plaster cracked around the window frame. Only small patches of eggshell white still covered the wall, the jagged outline of the removed staircase had been revealed in the ragged stone.

Stairs, framed by a plain iron railing, led to the basement. I turned on my torch and walked down into the black and white world beneath, as if I was drawing the image from a tray of developing fluid. At the bottom was the cracked concrete floor and the unmoving dust, like the sea floor when it’s lit by the beams of a deep-sea submersible. That’s how it was as I panned my light around, finding the leftovers of society’s deep-sea lifeforms.

There were exercise books and a whole shelf of tapes stacked neatly in a changing room. That was where they had drowned, studying for courses in the half-light but never reaching that coveted grade. That dream of surfacing when their covering letter hit the right desk, or the day when doctors were impressed by their progress. There was nothing personal left down there. It had all been burned in the outdoor grates, left to rot in a tip or just buried under the spoiling wreckage. I wondered if anything ever surfaced for their families, if they had them. If a message in a bottle floated up, neutered by the Tipp-Ex administered by healthcare professionals.

At that moment I wanted to rise, to emerge on the village road where women walk their dogs and people said good morning. Back up the stairs the clouds had opened to reveal the sky above, framed by the hole in the roof. They blinked out for a second as I walked beneath the four legs of the watchtower and heaved aside the metal gate. A snuff of wind entered through the gap and stirred the trees. Then all was still again.

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