Travel Writing: The Leprosery
Many years ago, when I was in College, I used to visit a friend who was studying down in Waterford town. The following is an account of a night I spent in the now demolished Waterford Infirmary (which in an earlier incarnation was a Leprosery, but mutated to a more mundane form of medical treatment when the number of Lepers in Ireland fell). The writing has been not been changed, leaving all the horrible boils and warts that were on it when pen first touched paper (as it was back in the day). The reason for this is so that the writing remains an accurate account of the way I thought all those years ago.
He opened the door, I smiled, it took him a second to recognise my face, and then he smiled too. I went into the house, and he made me a cup of coffee which I drank to the sound to Tom Waits. Mates hanging out. It was the best damn thing that had happened to me in weeks.
That didn’t happen, the last time we had seen each other must have been a month ago, and then we parted on frosty terms after knawing at each others necks ‘till they were red and raw.
This was to have been the joyous reunion. I boarded the train to Waterford at three O’Clock on a Saturday afternoon. I click-clacked across a patchwork of badly sewn fields for two hours. The side to side shifting of the train seemed happy with the promise of a great weekend to come. The bottle of Coke I’d brought with me grew less and less until finally, when I arrived in Waterford train station it vanished into a cloud of cigarette smoke never to be seen again.
Waterford, the sun had his hat coat and boots on, and a smile on his face. The river pushed itself dutifully under the bridge and out to sea. I took the easy way, over the bridge, and into the arteries of the town. Parched with sunlight I stopped off to drain a pint of Guinness, all the while thinking of his face - happy – disappointed – angry? All the things that I might have felt. I left the pub and walked down by the Market, the Dublin accents were still there, something I could never figure out. The reds, whites greens and oranges went well with the weather, almost hand in hand. I rounded the corner of Mall lane as the big hand rounded the twelve and still could not catch up with the little hand at the six.
Mall lane was always a country to itself, even on rainy days the houses always managed to steal some light from the afternoon. The front door was flanked by two eyes that only held a passing resemblance to windows. I knocked twice, rang four times. I stared in through an eye, his room was cleared, grey and dusty. The bed was in the front room, on top of the tattered sofa, the one which always hurt my back, everything was covered in plastic sheets, that final kind of plastic – not like a rain coat, more like a shroud – I hadn’t known about it but I’d kind of expected it. What to do? What to do? Have a cigarette for one thing, then try and figure it all out. The nicotine cleared my head of the fog long enough for the facts to start filtering their way through. No more trains and busses until tomorrow, that’s for sure, the last train was the one I came in on, and all the busses drew into their shelters an hour and a half ago. So – I could hear metaphysical laughter by this point – so, so where am I going to stay? Choices, choices, choices.
Two hours later and more phone calls than an operator on speed could count in a day, I realised I had but one option.
That option was stooped and rotting on a hill about two miles away. It was a leper hospital, a sanatorium, a placer where people had lived and died, and now it was dying itself. It’s skin was peeling like a leper, it’s eyes were bloodshot, the place was in a cold fever. Every major organ had one by one kicked in and died. The plumbing had rusted, the water, blood in the metal veins, had been cut off, and what remained was dripping out like tears of sadness. The power had been cut off and the synapses, the sockets, were scattered and shattered over the sandpaper concrete floors. The cancer of fire had licked and blackened the walls on most of the five stories.
I’d been there twice before, the first time was an adventure, with him and a few others, the second was scary, I’d been on my own. This would be the third – the last time I visited the virus of vandals had scavenged and plundered what was left of it’s dignity. Now there was probably nothing left to burn or break or steal.
I had about fifteen minutes of daylight left, to complete a twenty minute journey. It was dark by the time I got there, dark as it gets.
The rain began to fall as I arrived, a red and raw metal fence kept the hospital in isolation, away from the rest of the town. I struggled and stumbled over the metal spikes, and through the pale, streetlight yellow grass. I drew nearer to the concrete, metal and plaster corpse. It wanted to rest in peace. I was an invader here, an interloper, I was not wanted and the hospital told me so through the well water in the pit of my stomach. I struggled through a bush and over a moss covered stone wall which glowed phosphorescent in the faint and distant electric streetlight. But even that couldn’t wash the blackness of off my back. I waked round the rear of the hulking giant and then into its bowels, via a gash I myself had given it six months before. I was lucky, the gash still hadn’t healed itself up.
As I entered my struggle echoed like thunder on a quiet night. There was no light inside, no light at all. I found myself deep in an artery clogged with lime scale. Hands outstretched before me, I pushed metal creaky wheeled stretchers ahead of me and crunched old glass syringes below my feet. Five minutes, five hours….I don’t know how long it took me in that darkness to find somewhere habitable. I made my way towards the offices which I knew were two floors above. All the while trying not to look in the chambers and cells that I passed at the disconnected electroshock machines and the cat scans that had spilled their wired intestines all over the cold floors.
Finally I made it. The vandals had not been in the offices since I was last here. Papers were scattered all over the stained and ripped carpets. Strip lights hung in the orange gloom by single tendons, I had to duck to avoid touching them. Broken furniture lay splintered throughout the three rooms. The doors still doggedly remained on but opening and shutting them was impossible. The windows had seen too much and burst themselves all over the floor. I was told their story as they passed beneath my feet. Somewhere metal clattered applause at me. The echo took seconds to die away, having first to find its way out of the labyrinthine building. Cupboard doors that had been amputated from their housing were stacked against the far wall.
The newly born cold of the night started to seep in under the doors and through the windows and the cracks in the walls. Fire, I had to build a fire, a small one that couldn’t be seen from the street. A light box, once used for viewing x-rays had been stamped into a billion fragments, I couldn’t tell them from the rest of the damp debris. Only the metal casing remained, whoever did this didn’t have the time or the inclination to dismantle it. This would do as a fire place. Three cupboard doors stacked against the wall – my foot fell again and again and again, no way I could see my foot hitting them, but I could hear their bones break. The wind gave a sigh in another room on another level somewhere in this vast five story building. Kindling, I need kindling, damn it!, it’s getting colder. Sound of paper scrunching, still can’t see much, soon after twenty to thirty paper balls in the light box casing, I feel at last as if I’m getting somewhere. Fuck it, why is everything so damn cold? I reach for another bit of paper and find instead a dry mop. Pulling desperately I lay the strands over and under the paper. I strike a match, light at last, but not much, a small flame cannot burn away this much inky blackness.
I put the flame to the paper, paper takes the flame, the room becomes more friendly to my presence. At last things are going well, I lie back and light a cigarette, inhaling deeply. Warmth and light – on my skin and face – even creeping up my back and into my bones. My smoking oh so suddenly turns to choking, razors cut into my throat. I turn on my stomach, those damn chipboard doors, smoke fills my lungs like kerosene, the whole room is now poisonous, the broken windows don’t make a difference. I panic, try to stamp it out. Cinders like fireworks fill the room and add to the smoke. I’ve got to get out of here, I lunge for the metal casing, and fling it out into the asylum corridors, it rolls and clatters away from me, leaving a runway of fire behind it.
I sit shaking in the corridor listening to all the scary night noises this place can throw at me. The room starts to clear of smoke, I wait, as the embers flicker and die leaving me again in darkness. Ten minutes, twenty, thirty, I re-enter the room, each footfall shatters the silence and the glass and plastic. I go to another room in the office complex and find three unbroken chairs, I pull them together and create a makeshift bed, using my bag as a pillow. I lie down and cannot sleep, trees dance on the wall, slowly coming out of oblivion travelling painfully across the width of my vision and dying, only to be reincarnated when another set of headlights tops the hill.
Metal hits metal somewhere in the darkness, it turns me into a rod of steel for fifteen minutes then when I finally begin to relax I hear the same noise again. I find myself holding a steel bar in defence, to stop whatever it is, whoever it is, from getting me. Please God, just let me sleep, just let me close my eyes and when I open them again let it be morning, the creaking bones and the dead feeling behind my eyes will be worth it just to see morning.
So I have a cigarette, I’ve got enough to last me, this packet and three more in my bag. After five cigarettes and the feeling that something died in my mouth, I finally get to the point where I can relax and lie back.
The hospital creaks and groans in remembrance of the sadness of the past, it remembers the people who died here and those who were born here, the children who cried here with the needles in their veins and the chemicals in their blood. Somewhere down in the basement plunged in darkness with its two foot walls, the old cook rattles his pots and pans and the chains that have kept his spirit in this deserted kitchen for one hundred years now. His rhythm lulls me into sleep.
Morning breaks like its just climbed out of a fridge, my bones ache, a layer of hospital smell covers my body. I walk, I walk, and creak and hobble down to the nicotine stained station café. I breathe a sigh of relief as I board the train and write this.
I’ve still got a chip of the Hospitals crumbling plaster on my shoulder.
Peace and Hope