“It’s like a luxury hotel in here,” said Penny to Cleo, who was draped across a chair in the lounge room of Pandanus Palms psychiatric hospital, a pink hibiscus tucked behind her ear. They were discussing the merits of combining tropical plants and plush furniture with the plastic chandelier.
“It’s done on movie sets to create an illusion of opulence,” said Cleo. She sat up and stretched her arms. She gave a yelp. “That new guy Tom grabbed me too hard in the final scene last night.”
Penny knew Tom. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” she said.
Cleo surveyed the bruises on her arms. She noticed marks on her wrists. “The make-up people forgot to remove my scars.”
Penny was going to change the subject but fortunately Cleo yawned.
“You’re getting tired, dear.” Penny began to gather her things. “I’d better go.”
Cleo rubbed her eyes and blinked rapidly. “Did you see him?”
Penny spun around but there was no-one else in the room. The air was still and heavy with the perfume from a flowering orchid. “Who?”
“The producer. He looked in the window.” Cleo sat stiffly in the chair, staring at the window like an unblinking cat.
Penny readied herself for an outburst. “I’ll buzz for the––” she began.
Suddenly Cleo jumped up and ran to the window.
“I won’t go back into his hell-hole of a studio.” She tugged frantically at the heavy, brocade curtains. Once closed, the dimness appeared to satisfy her but she paced up and down with clenched fists. “He was checking the spot where the stunt man fell. They don’t know why he toppled out the window. It wasn’t in the rehearsal script.”
She went to the curtains and peeked out. “Thank God, he’s gone.”
Penny leaned over and pushed the nurse’s call buzzer.
“You can buzz all you want, the waiter service is atrocious,” said Cleo. “When they do come, they hold you down and force you to eat.”
She started to twirl around the room, knocking into furniture.
Her medication is wearing off fast, thought Penny. She felt unsafe. “Stop it!” she shouted.
Cleo sat down on the floor, a dazed look on her face. “It’s dark in here,” she said, wrapping her arms around her ribcage. “This is what that lady in the buckled up jacket does.”
Penny went to the window and opened the curtains. Summer sunlight flooded back into the room. Cleo winced. “That spotlight is too bright.”
“I’ll tell the lighting technician,” Penny said. She hurried from the room and saw that the long white hallway was empty. The staff must be at the press conference, she thought.
After straightening a painting with shaking fingers, Penny had an idea and returned to the lounge room.
“The director says the cast can take a break,” she told Cleo.
“About time. Scene after scene and none of them mine. I’m freezing my butt off waiting for my audition cue and it never comes. Boredom and suicide are the same thing.” Cleo again paced the floor.
Penny recognised the first signs of her hourly ritual. Cleo went through the motions of taking an imaginary cigarette from its packet, putting it in her mouth and lighting it. With a noise of disgust, she tossed the cigarette on the carpet. Quickly, she stamped it out. “Have to save oxygen,” she said. “The door shouldn’t be closed. It’s the stunt man’s idea. ‘Get off me,’ I tell him. He knows I don’t like small spaces. The door is made of steel. Hey, HEY, can anyone hear me? This isn’t funny, guys. The sound of nothing is pressing into my ear drums. The silence will squash my head. Let me OUT!”
Penny made cutting actions with her finger across her throat. “The cameras have stopped rolling.”
“I need warm soup,” said Cleo, her teeth chattering. “Where’s the c-catering van?”
“Think about something else, dear,” Penny said, hoping a nurse was on the way.
“Remember when you were little? You said if something went wrong, you’d make-believe. It’s fun to pretend you’re another person. You can be anything you set your mind to.”
“That box room was too strong, it over-powered my mind.” Tears started to form in Cleo’s eyes. “I didn’t want to play a dead person. The box was trying to kill off my character––it wanted to be my coffin.”
“You lasted a lot longer than most people would, given the circumstances.” Penny lead Cleo to a couch and sat with her, gently smoothing her hair. After awhile, two people entered the room, Cleo’s doctor and a new clinical nurse. Penny surreptitiously made the sign of the cross.
The nurse checked Cleo’s pulse then injected her in the middle of a bruise on her upper arm. Cleo pulled back, slowly rubbing her skin. “More pain.”
The nurse pointed to a bluish lesion and said, “I hope you gave as good as you got.”
“One of my better performances,” said Cleo, tossing her head.
With a weak smile, the doctor said, “Ready to meet your fans, Cleo?”
“No.” Cleo turned her back and toyed with a palm frond.
They coaxed her into leaving the room and walked down several corridors until they reached an unmarked door. When it was opened, Penny hugged Cleo and left. She hated to watch that door close and wanted to be out of earshot before it slammed.
In the foyer of the hospital, Penny wondered how far she should carry Cleo’s delusion. The hospital portico was swarming with staff and media representatives.
With one hand on her heart and the other on the door handle, Penny opened the front door.
A reporter pounced.
“What happened on the set of Cleo’s new movie?”
Before Penny could reply, Tom, the psychiatric nurse, ran over and grabbed her arm.
“Come with me, Penelope,” he said. “It’s time for your medication.”
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
- Cleo is a mentally disturbed woman. She talks in riddles and,
due to an apparently traumatic event on a movie set, she cannot
separate fact from fiction. She confuses the Pandanus Palms
psychiatric hospital with a film location. We are lead to believe she
has once tried suicide and that the stunt man may have caused her
- Penny has “adopted” Cleo and calls her “dear”. She cares about
her and understanding her moods but is not able to help in a positive
way. She has her own set of unseen demons.
- Tom is a bit player with an important part. Did he cause the bruising
on Cleo’s arms?
- The setting is a room with lavish décor but Cleo becomes cold and
hungry. Is she reliving an incident or just acting the part?
- Is the box a padded cell or a prop gone wrong?
- Does Cleo see the truth wrapped up in theatrical guise? Is she driven
by revenge to murder? When the “reveal” comes at the end, can we
guess at what was truth and what was the swirling of a delusional
mind, aided and abetted by Penny.