Layla is – erm – out of action at this moment in time. Sorry to disappoint.
I realise you’ve called and now someone else has answered the phone, but really, what do you want me to do about it? Layla doesn’t like to be seen in a state (mental hospital? Tee hee!) Oh-kay, moving on…
It felt like I was writing a letter, unsure as to what I should pen next. I didn’t know where to start, how to explain the events of the day as I leaned against the padded cell’s wall, brushing gritty, saline crescents from under my eyes. I, or Layla (probably both of us) had been crying.
After taking them away from my reddened eyes, I balled my hands into fists so tightly they shook. It was one of those times where I could easily have thrown something. As usual, there was nothing to take it out on so I breathed deeply, trying to swallow my anger.
As usual, attempting this was pointless. Stuffing down my feelings was more like choking on a jagged shrapnel piece for all the good it did. What can I say? – I hold a mean grudge.
Those of us who had the nerve called the (quote, unquote) sanatorium Breakdown Motel, as a kind of in-joke. If you weren’t here because of some kind of breakdown then being here was likely to lead to one.
I reached out to Layla, who had maintained a stony silence to rival the one I sat stewing in. For no reason, I started tapping my fingers together in a sort of bored way, waiting for an answer.
‘M’okay’, she mumbled
‘You’re slipping’, I remarked, ‘I don’t believe that one bit. You sound the exact opposite of okay.’
Layla sighed. ‘Why do I even bother?’
‘What’s the problem?’ I countered. This felt worse than usual; it had lasted longer than many of Layla’s subdued moments. Layla was not one to overreact. I overreact.
For every effect, there must be a cause, so that was what I searched for amongst Layla’s heavy, blue thoughts. I found something: the… time… of year.
July – how could I forget? Layla’s least favourite month, containing a day which had only filled her with disappointment of late.
It’s just plain out of order not to look forward to your own birthday, but when the day came around every year she never seemed in the mood for celebrating. If anything, the occasion made her more defensive than usual.
‘I think that just goes to show the nature of this place, don’t you think?’ said Layla bitterly.
‘You shouldn’t let that spoil it, Layla’, I replied. ‘Sixteen is a milestone. You’re almost an adult.’ Something about ‘almost’ got Layla’s back up.
‘Do you not recall when I turned nine?’ she asked. ‘That’s the root of the issue, it reminds me of home.’ She faltered before the word ‘home’, something she hadn’t thought about in ages.
I let my back slide down the wall until I reached a sitting position. I did remember, because I was there. I am always there.
Layla was walking with a spring in her step along the corridor, like someone had totally rejuvenated her all of a sudden. To me she seemed positively – what’s the word? – buoyant. I was pleased to see her feeling good about something. She flounced up to Doc, who had also taken note of her cheerful disposition.
“Guess what?” she asked excitedly.
“What’s got you so elated today?” Layla didn’t seem to notice the scepticism in the doctor’s question. It nagged me while she rushed ahead.
“It’s my birthday!”
He wished her happy birthday; even she noticed his rare use of her first name. Slowly, Layla took in a deep breath. I got the distinct impression she had been building up to what she was preparing to say.
“You know how you have to be super kind to someone on their birthday?” she asked, not so much innocently as sweetly.
Doc hesitated before he responded, “Ye-es.” It looked like he had decided to humour her.
“Well, I was thinking that maybe I could go home for the day and see Mum”, she said, putting her hands together in the gesture for ‘please’. “I miss her."
It was true. She’d been thinking of home, parties there, last year: her first birthday away from home.
So, when he looked her in the face and told her “Why would I let you do that?”, I understood why her happiness deflated like a balloon struck with a pin. Her slight figure and the smile on her face wilted. For a minute, she was led to wonder why she had even asked.
“Just for one day”, Layla argued back audaciously, regaining a little height.
“It is NOT up for discussion!” he snapped.
I was musing about the way Doc’s tone grew even more formal the angrier he got when Layla’s composure broke.
She beat her small fists against his arm once, twice… three times. Every pair of eyes in the corridor was fixed upon her, an eager audience waiting for her next move.
“I hate you!” she screamed before turning sharply on her heels to flee.
All of her other reactions were somewhat delayed. When she got back to her cell, alone, she hurled herself onto her bed, thumping the pillow repeatedly in frustration. She felt so angry it made her tearful at the same time.
Layla was too hurt to care that her reaction would get her nowhere, hurtling between emotions too fast to stop and listen to anyone.
To this day, that encounter had left a black mark on her birthday, it didn’t matter the amount of time that had passed. The message had sunk deep. It was reflected all over her each year. Although she was pretty quiet about it (you may have noticed Layla’s insularity), she was never so sentimental at any other time. Not that I didn’t get why it made her so nostalgic.
And you thought I was the bad guy.
You can call me what you will, but trust me - from my perpetual dark corner, I've seen it all go down.
As you can possibly imagine, that meant I had no trouble knowing anyone. Unquestionably, the best way to get the measure of someone would be to observe them when they don’t think they’re being watched.
There was no doubting that being me had its advantages, alright.