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Not long after starting at the village school, I came across a new insult:  botley.  Judging from the contexts in which it was used, it was evidently the supreme slur; but I found it incomprehensible.  “What IS a botley?” I would ask, only to meet the jeering response, “If you don’t know that, then you’re a botley yourself, nyah, nyah.”

It was some time before I found out – from my Dad, who had known the area in his childhood – that this epithet referred to what was then Botley’s Park Hospital, but which had been founded in the 1930’s as Botley’s Park Colony for Mental Defectives.  It appeared that local children had understood “Botley’s Park” as “Botleys’ Park” and concluded that an inmate was therefore ‘a Botley’.

Dad also explained something that had long puzzled me: that when a bystander in the London street scene in The Magician’s Nephew refers to the Empress Jadis as “the h’Empress of Colney ‘Atch”, he intends it to be inferred that she is deluded; Colney Hatch in North London was the home of the largest lunatic asylum in Europe, drawing inmates from the whole London area.

At the schoolroom centre, the phrase for admission to the local psychiatric hospital – still referred to as ‘the Asylum’ – was ‘being sent up the road tae Rigg’.  ‘Admission to’ was still an euphemism for ‘incarceration in’ – the place was isolated from the city, set far back from the road, screened by walls and dense planting.  It was one of those Victorian affairs of solid stone, with cone-topped turrets and crowstepped gables and if you wanted one word to sum it up it would be, ‘bleak’.  The word ‘Rigg’ connoted imbecility, madness, and a lingering whiff of sexual revulsion, since many of the Victorian inmates had had the underlying condition of tertiary syphilis.

Thankfully, people with mild or moderate cognitive impairments were no longer sent long-term to places like Rigg.  Instead, they were set up in Council flats as small, mutually-supporting groups.  For Agnes and June, it seemed to be working well.

Agnes was one of the older ‘trainees’ at the schoolroom centre.  She was tiny, trim and energetic, with thick, fractured-ice-white hair that I think must once have been an intense red, and summer-sea-blue eyes. She shared a flat with June, the youngest ‘trainee’, who had moderate physical disabilities resulting from birth injuries that had caused cerebral palsy.  June took care of admin, shopping lists, budgets, forms and writing; Agnes cleaned, cooked, fetched and carried.  They did their weekly shopping trip together, June counting the money and Agnes carrying the bags.  They had complementary personalities, too. June was somewhat highly strung and prone to fits of exasperation; Agnes was mostly serene and accepting.  But on the very rare occasions when Agnes was in a tizz about something, June could be touchingly understanding and protective of her.

Going on the shopping trips with them was one of the perks of the job as far as I was concerned.  They would bicker amiably beforehand about their menu (“Stovies again!  I’m scunnered wi’ you an’ yir stovies!  Can we no’ have somethin’ else this week?”  “Ah like stovies.”  “Och, you’d eat them till you turned into stovies!  Weell, just so’s I can have chops one day…”)  and have friendly arguments in the aisles about branded versus non-branded goods, but they also noticed what was happening around them and would treat you to a highly entertaining running commentary of their observations and opinions.  They were well-known in the area, and the shopping spree was likely to be enjoyably prolonged by bumping into a neighbour who had time and inclination for a good blether.

For Agnes, the highlight of any trip was meeting somebody with a baby.  Agnes loved babies, and would peer under the hood of every pram we met, make enquiries of the pusher as to their relationship to the infant, go into details of its name, age, weight, temperament and development.  She would coo over the length of the baby’s eyelashes, the cuteness of its wee button nose, comment admiringly on its bonnie hair or rosy cheeks.  Agnes could always find something to admire in a baby, no matter how bald, bawling, spotty or snotty. For her, there was no such person as ‘a baby with a face only its mother could love’.  Finally, she would take a silver coin from her purse and make to lay it in the pram, then turn and present it to the adult, saying, “Better gie this tae ye,” and then to the baby, “We dinna want emb’dy eating something they shouldna, dae we?”  This ceremony of the piece of silver – “for luck” – was Agnes’s way of bringing the encounter to a graceful close, and we would walk on, while she said happily, “That wis a bonnie bairn, wis it no’?”

“Yes, Agnes, very bonnie.”

No-one seemed to mind being accosted by Agnes.  Diminutive in her smart, neatly-belted, going-for-the-messages coat, a headscarf tied under her chin to keep the white hair in place, and with her gentle, innocent manner, she had something of an air of everybody’s favourite grannie about her, with a slight suggestion of fairy godmother when it came to the presentation of the coin.

The powers-that-were decreed that Agnes and June should move into a larger flat, in order to accommodate a third ‘trainee’, who was being decanted from the residential home.  Now that the ‘Asylums’ were emptied of inmates, the Care in the Community policy had moved on to shutting down these smaller places.  The ‘hostel’ was a bright, warm, cheerful place that rather resembled University Halls of Residence and it was already about half-empty.  Their social workers took Agnes and June to visit the new flat.  On her return, June was volubly unimpressed.  The place had apparently been inhabited by a group of men, who must, said June, have been the clartiest beasts in creation and have reeked like lums into the bargain, since everything stank to high heaven of cigarette smoke.  Social Services, applied to, declared that they were prepared to supply paint for redecorating, but stipulated that the women would have to do the painting, and any cleaning, themselves.

Agnes came into the centre on the following Monday morning in a state of near-collapse.  She had apparently spent all weekend trying vainly to scrub the new flat into an acceptable state and was almost incoherent with mourning over the impending loss of her present ‘hoose’ and her fears about being harried into the other one.  The centre manageress went to see the flat, and came back nearly as incoherent as Agnes – reporting that it was filthy, the carpets sucked stickily at the soles of your shoes, and the fag-smoke was impregnated into everything, including the wallpaper.  There was no way that Agnes, as the only fully able-bodied prospective tenant, could sort it out for the other two.  And Agnes had already been put at risk – in an attempt to remove the nicotine glaze from electrical fittings like light switches, she had been washing them with soap and water.

“It’s God’s own mercy she hadn’t blown every fuse in the block and electrocuted herself forbye,” said the manageress, heading for the phone and a rant at social services, while I sat trying to comfort Agnes and June.

Agnes suddenly spat, “Ah’m no’ going there again till it’s sortit.  Ah’d rather be sent up the road tae Rigg.”  June protested, but Agnes just kept repeating, “Ah’d rather be sent up the road tae Rigg.”

Eventually, Agnes took herself and her indignation off to the lavatory, whereupon June burst into tears.  “She’s aye said that Rigg is the worst place in the world and she’ll niver go back.  How bad must she be feeling, tae say the likes o’ that?”

It was a horrible day, and after the manageress had threatened and cajoled social services into agreeing to have the flat professionally redecorated throughout, and after we had given the news to Agnes and June, and calmed everybody down as best we could, and after the ‘trainees’ had left for the day, we staff all sat around for half an hour, drinking strong tea and venting our own feelings.

“I didn’t know Agnes had been in Rigg,” I said.

One of the other care workers pursed her lips.  “Agnes has on’y been livin’ in toon fur ten years or thereaboots.  Ma mither’s freen’ used tae work up tae Rigg.  Agnes wis in there maist o’ her life.  Naeb’dy kent wha did it, but someb’dy got her pregnant when she wis fifteen, an’ she wis pit awa’ fur bein’ whit they ca”ed a moral imbecile.  It wis awfy sad.  They took the bairn awa’ fae her, o’ coorse, but he wisnae the fu’ shillin’ himsel’, an’ when he wis tae auld fur the bairns’ hame, he endit up in Rigg an’ a’.  Ma mither’s freen’ said it wis the saddest thing iver, tae see the twa o’ them sittin’ at the same table, an’ them no’ kennin’ that they were mither an’ son.”

I thought of how much Agnes loved babies, and I thought of her kindness and the innocence of her forget-me-not eyes.  I thought of the love that she would surely have given to her boy, had she been allowed to bring him up herself.  I thought of how much better he might have done for being brought up by someone who loved him, even someone who wasn’t ‘the full shilling’, instead of being processed through an institution.  I thought of the light-switches and the soapy water, but I still thought that with a bit of support, Agnes would have made a fine mother.  And I thought of the systems that punish the vulnerable for their vulnerability, and I felt sick.