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The Loudening

where imagination and madness mingle

By Caroline JanePublished about a month ago Updated 14 days ago 10 min read
The Loudening
Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

"Lorraine, there really is no reason for you to sit here every day." Miranda, Lolly's nurse, has been in the room all of two minutes and already, in that brief time, she has tucked the bed sheets into tight corners, plumped up the feather pillows with the vigour of a person trying to resuscitate the duck whose down filled them, admonished me, and dragged open the window's heavy green brocade curtains as though channelling the spirit of a matador about to grab a bull by its horns. With arms outstretched, the heavy curtains swinging from momentum on either side of her, she breathes in deeply and exhales the words, "Just look at that weather!" Holding her pose like a missionary on the mount, she bathes in the glory of the view that beholds her.

Her enthusiasm is as jarring as the sunlight is blinding. In response, I scrunch my face up, recoil into the easy chair by Lolly's bed and watch through squinted eyes as the bosom of Miranda's robust silhouette rises and falls as she fills her lungs with the airless view. Once vicariously full, she turns, picks up her room spray from the oval table by the window, and walks towards the chair in which I am sitting, misting a zesty orange spritz into the dead room air as she moves. Reaching me, she bends down, places one of her ham-like hands on my comparatively tiny shoulder, and, looking me squarely in the eyes, whispers, "You could go out for a while. Lolly does not need to know."

I smile at her good intentions as she searches my redacted pupils, looking for something that I do not have to give. After a moment, the yellow flecks of fire inside the determined steel of her dark grey irises turn fleetingly to liquid. She sighs, straightens up, and looks over at "The River," the large painting that sits as the focal point in the room on the wall opposite the bed. As she gazes at it, she shakes her head sorrowfully and then, with a slight tremble in her voice, says, "I shall go and get you a jug of fresh water."

She leaves the room with half the heart she had when she entered. Lolly and I tend to have that effect on people, and the painting, well, it has the power to seal the deal of many moods. I chew my bottom lip as I watch her bustle out because I know she means well, and I can completely appreciate how difficult it must be for her to understand why I will not leave Lolly's bedside. Five years confined to any room, even one as pleasant as this room at Palm Wood's Psychiatric Facility, is, after all, a very long time.

I look over at Lolly's bed. Her dark blue bedspread is almost azure blue under the wash of sunlight from the window. Motes of dust disturbed by Miranda's tidying typhoon catch the light as they glide back down onto the pillows to settle again. I reach over and pick up Lolly's large pearly pink and white conch shell, which is always within arm's reach by her bedside. I stroke it like she used to before she withdrew from life and lost herself. The familiarity of the movement is soothing to me. I look up at the painting of The River, smile and silently thank Lolly's parents for insisting the painting and the shell remain with their daughter. The familiarity of them helps me stay close to what has been lost. I gaze into the turquoise hues of the painting, and I feel the tears of grief prick my eyes.

It is remarkable to think how profoundly a piece of board covered in some paint can affect people, and this painting conjured from nothing more than Lolly's imagination, has a hauntingly extensive reach. It has been said that what sets it apart is its unusual perspective. Lolly painted it as though she was lying on a riverbed looking up. Looking at it, they say, subverts our expectations of what paintings of waterways should be and opens us up to experience life through a broader lens. Others say it is bewitching because its technical proficiency is unparalleled, with the juxtaposition of the dark, cold wash of the water beneath the refracted ripples of moonlight perfectly executed to the point the inert image seems to move. Many more describe that the painting speaks to our human condition's collective unconsciousness and how we all, on some level, feel like the artist must have as we drown in life's unrelenting flow. Likely, all of these factors are part of the sum that makes the whole. What I know, having been there when it was completed, having spent five years of my life with it, staring at it every day, and watching countless people enter this room to visit Lolly only to find their attention stolen by it, is that the painting truly does speak to people in ways only they can understand and nobody has yet put their finger on the pulse of what it actually represented for Lolly.

That has always been our secret.

I stroke the conch shell in my lap and remember the day she finished it.

"It is so loud, Lorraine," she said as we lay face to face on the floor of her art studio, The River painting, still wet on her easel.

Lolly's mirror-like labyrinthine eyes seemed to spool as she spoke, tears toppling as she said, "Lorraine, yours may be the only voice I can hear clearly now." Shaking, she curled into a tight ball and pleaded, "Please don't ever leave me."

She seemed so small, withered from the labours of birthing her progeny, lost inside the womb of her huge vacuous studio. I promised her there and then that I would never leave her, no matter what, not for one moment, not even for a lungful of crisp summer's air.

I stand and, nursing the conch shell in my arms, shuffle in my slippers over to the window to sit in the red wing-backed chair that looks out over Palm Wood's immaculate lawns. The tumbles of amethyst wisteria flowers that climb up the grey stone walls and float around the boxed bay windows have attracted a party of Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies to graze. Their red and black wings look elegant and striking against the purple. Lolly would love the colours. There is a handsomeness in the contrast that belies the frailty of both the flower's petals and the butterfly's wings, or perhaps because they are frail, their colours seem all the more beautiful. I think about how, in a few days, these dancing and feasting butterflies will be dead and how life's brevity is a cruel master, especially for the painfully beautiful. Then I think about how deep love is when it is evoked by frailty and wonder why we still put fitness on a pedestal when we know that it is through our love that we will save the world.

I feel the lingering prick of the tear welling within me and decide to move my focus from dwelling on the tyranny of the butterfly and wisteria flower's frail beauty to the certain stoic trees in the distant woodland beyond the carefully striped lawns. The breeze outside is light, and their rich green leaves ruffle under its touch, flashing glimpses of silver. I feel calm when I watch them, for they suffer no urgency. I cheer myself by imagining the gentle sway of their branches tickling the soft blue sky, and I imagine that the glowing sun on this cloudless day is Mother Nature's happy heart, delighted by the sensation of their touch. Sometimes, I sit here when the wind whips up, and as the trees really lean into the sky's underbelly, their branches frantic like nimble fingers, I can find myself laughing as I imagine Mother Nature would if we could hear her. Miranda looks at me oddly when I laugh at the trees, as though I might need a bed next to Lolly. Maybe I do; it's hard to know where imagination ends and madness begins.

A smattering of clouds drift across the seamless blue sky. I watch their reflection in the green still waters of the caged pond beneath the window, and I stroke the conch shell in my lap as I think of Lolly and how we first met. She must have only been around seven or eight. I remember she was lying on her tummy by the brook in her garden, listening.

"Shhhhh." Her hand shot in the air to silence me as I approached.

Curious, I stopped and waited as instructed.

She brought the hand she had used to silence me down and cupped its palm against her left ear. Her right ear, remaining unmoved, was pressed firmly into the dirt. Besides that one movement, she lay entirely still.

After a good while, she turned onto her back and looked up at me, deadpan with her white blonde hair bedraggled by mud, her dungarees grass-stained and unhooked on one shoulder. Without exchanging a word, she closed her eyes, rubbed at her ears, and then, after a moment, reopened her eyes to stare at me before asking, with a very serious expression on her face, "What can you hear?"

Confused, I looked around, unsure what she meant. I could hear the crows cackling in the distance, the intermittent passing of the cars on the road beyond the garden hedge, the tinkle of the water in the brook, and the gentle breeze grazing my ears. Unsure which of these sounds she wanted me to describe, I shrugged.

"No voices then?" She said, clarifying the sound she sought to verify.

I shook my head.

"Never mind," she said, adding precociously, "I will not hold that against you." Then she asked, as though it was something that should be asked of everyone a person meets, "Do you have a superpower?"

Again, I shook my head.

"That's ok," she said, "You can be my sidekick."

I smiled, for I could already foresee that life as Superhero Lolly's sidekick would be full of adventure.

Like all superhero teams, we kept Lolly's powers secret, and it was a really easy secret to keep because, despite our best, most imaginative efforts, neither of us could quite figure out what Lolly's superpower actually did.

"Perhaps I am a mermaid. The voices can sound like they are coming from underwater and they do swirl like a whirlpool would. Maybe they are the voices of other mermaids calling me home. Mum always said when I was a baby, she only had to run a tap, and I'd be off to sleep. Maybe I am a Mermaid's lost baby."

"They often come at night. I think they could be ghosts, whispering and mumbling woes to me. Perhaps my dead relatives are trying to send me messages. Grandma always said she'd be watching."

"Lorraine, do you think I could be a telepath? I could be hearing the minds of all the people in the world. It can sound like a crowd of people talking all at once. Maybe it is their dreams leaking out. Could I be a dream catcher?"

"It could be a secret code! Perhaps it is an alien race trying to reach Earth. It could be a warning."

"Sometimes it sounds like an out-of-tune radio with layers of messages speaking over others. Perhaps I am hearing radio frequencies. I could be a human antenna."

"It could be God, Lorraine. Do you think God has a plan for me?"

As exciting as it was to explore all of these possibilities, we never settled on why Lolly had her superpower, and sadly, over the years, the concreteness of our ever-increasing world knowledge began to fill in the gaps that used to sparkle with our childish speculation. This, of course, not only coloured in the picture for us but also darkened the lightness.

Just before she painted her seminal collection, which included the highly acclaimed The River, we were at the beach, one of Lolly's favourite places in the world, collecting shells and pebbles for another project. It was a steely day, and the sea was roaring against the great jagged black cliffs near where we were with great yawning gasps, thrashing and spitting in frothy fits up the mottled orange, grey and white pebbled shores. "This," she shouted at me across the breaks of the screaming sea, "this is how it sounds in my head now. Lorraine, I am afraid. I can't control it anymore." She crumpled to the floor, her blonde hair streaming up and around her in a fever of ribbons, her collection of pebbles and shells spilling onto the beach. I held her in my arms as her desperate blue eyes searched my face for hope. "It is so loud, Lorraine." She sobbed. "Why won't the loudening stop? The voices are going to drown me."

I look over at Lolly's bed. If only we had realised sooner that the voices were both Lolly's superpower and her nemesis, how different things may have been.

I hold the pearly pink and white conch shell to my ear and listen to the sound of the sea trapped within its coil. It is the nearest thing I have to experiencing what Lolly could hear. She once told me that its sound was similar to how it was when it first started. It helped her to keep the shell close because she could listen to the noise inside it and put it down. Having that control, she believed, slowed the tides of her internal voices and stopped them from storming.

Miranda enters the room with a jug of water, and with the shell still to my ear, I stare at the painting of The River on the wall. I can feel the flow of the paint in the curling, ebbing, lustre of the shell's sound. I can sense the movement of each brushstroke, feel the layers building, the image awakening, colours merging and swirling with the eddying whispering hum in my ear. I can feel the essence of the painting loudening and boldening, then tingling and quietening in broad-breaking tides, harmonising and anthropomorphising with the sound to become so much more than paint on a board.

Miranda places a glass on the table and pours some water from the jug. "There you are, Lorraine," she says.

I look at her, confused, and say, "Lorraine's not here, Miranda."

"Lolly?" She asks.

I nod.

Short StoryPsychological

About the Creator

Caroline Jane

Warm-blooded vertebrate, domesticated with a preference for the wild. Howls at the moon and forages on the dark side of it. Laughs like a hyena. Fuelled by good times and fairy dust. Writes obsessively with no holes barred.

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Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  1. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (8)

  • The Invisible Writerabout a month ago

    This was literary writing with its vivid descriptions and evocative imagery. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the river but overall each part of the story was so well done

  • Anu Mehjabinabout a month ago

    Enjoying your story, keep it up!

  • Cathy holmesabout a month ago

    Beautifully written. Unlike Christy, I'll admit I didn't get at first. Love how you brought it together in the end. Well done.

  • Christy Munsonabout a month ago

    I had an inkling in your first paragraph, with Lolly and Lorraine's names being placed back to back, so I read seeking proof of my theory. I found evidence throughout, but only just beneath the surface. My husband jokes that I'm a TV detective, and he's right. I can't help but look for clues everywhere. But that does not at all diminish the magic of your well woven tale. Stunning story! I absolutely LOVE this story, and your writing style more generally. You truly are a world class writer. Even though I had my suspicions from the first (and largely because I knew the nature of the challenge), you managed to convince me of every word. I grow to care about your characters, which is amazing. Allow me to congratulate you now for what should be a Top Story, and or challenge winner! Brava!!! 🥳

  • Love the blurring in here, and some wonderful connectivity

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    Beautiful work, but now, now I think I want to be very quiet.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Oh my, so Lolly and Lorraine are the same person? Please correct me if I'm wrong. I loved how delulu Lolly was, thinking she's a mermaid's lost baby or a dream catcher. I'm often delulu like that too hehehe. Loved your story!

  • shanmuga priyaabout a month ago

    Interesting to read....

Caroline JaneWritten by Caroline Jane

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