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Creating a marker

Few pamphlets have as moving a dedication as this one. It is dedicated to

the 1,150 people who, between 1908 and 1994, died in Carlton Hayes Hospital […] and were buried nearby in a mass grave in Narborough cemetery without headstones or markers of any kind.

So the publication itself creates a kind of marker for the dead, a way of honouring them. Carlton Hayes was what we once called ‘a lunatic asylum’. And it had nearly twelve hundred people in its mass grave. What an utterly chilling thought!

But the particular detail that fired Marilyn Ricci’s imagination was the fact that the hospital also had ‘the best dance floor in the country’ — a light in much darkness, the thought of those dances.

And so she creates two fictional inmates, one (Edward) admitted in 1947 and the other (Mary) in 1966. In dramatic monologues, one for each character, she brings them alive, allows them to meet, and finally leaves them quick-stepping on the dance floor.

And the two characters do come alive. Edward, during active service in the Second World War, has been traumatised by an explosion. He’s haunted by the memories:

A long piercing whistle, we gag on oil, a flash
of green, amber and red. Marsh stares at the place
his hand used to be. Doyle lies in his seat
as though he’s asleep.

In the hospital, Edward sees Mary and recognises a particular ‘look on her face’. They have nothing in common, and everything in common. ‘Mary, don’t hold your grief like a prize’, he thinks.

Dancing at the Asylum is a beautiful piece of dramatisation. It begs for a radio broadcast where the characters speak while the listening imagination fills out the scene.

Edward comes from a classy background. Mary is made of more ordinary stuff. She doesn’t have his education, his references, his elegant choice of words.

But she has a moment of magic, and it’s transformative; it’s her marker. I won’t forget her:

Her hands feel like clouds soft with rain and, boy,
can she dance! Feather-footed in her scarlet dress,
rose in her hair and nothing like Marjorie on the
parterre.

Helena Nelson