The rain lashed down on the horrible craggy frontage of Ranley Down psychiatric hospital, highlighting the blackened bricks, the peeling paintwork and the sheer desolate gloom of the place.
What had I got myself into?
My friend, architectural salvage dealer Archie Stanhope, was climbing down from his big truck, parked in the front drive of the ghastly Victorian building. He stood beside me, his 83-year-old eyes, more used to staring at distant horizons from onboard a ship, were staring upwards at the unfriendly broken windows, that seemed to be glaring down at us, willing us to leave.
The wretched place had been a derelict and festering eyesore on the edge of town for three years now, since the last patient left its miserable shadow-filled entrance vestibule.
I’d got the call yesterday morning. An excitable Archie Stanhope had said to me, “Can you spare a day to help me Jamie? I’ve just been told on the quiet that Ranley Down’s just been bought by a developer, and they’re bringing it down the day after tomorrow.”
“That’s a bit sudden isn’t it?”
“Way of the world these days—in property development, time is money. They take possession at eight in the morning, when the trucks arrive, and it’s a pile of rubble by teatime.”
“So where do you come in?”
“The demolition guy is a mate of mine. He’s told us when his gang are starting, and he knows I’d love to get my hands on those lovely old fireplaces and floorboards and other bits and pieces. I just need a fella who know how to be discreet to help me strip them out and get them away from there tomorrow—we’ve got to do it all in one day.”
“Is it legal?” I asked.
“Come on, Jamie! Why quibble about details.”
I was intrigued, and of course I trusted dear old Archie, so I agreed, thought I felt a bit wary of doing such a crazy, obviously illegal thing.
And now It was dawn—the time of day I hated most. Coupled with a tiredness headache, the teeming rain and the prospect of backbreaking manual work, I was beginning to regret my rash decision. But Archie was a good friend, and I couldn’t let him down.
It was a gothic building, straight out of a horror film, with the full works: peculiar little turrets built out at funny angles, carved stonework window cills, and peeling paintwork. Inside the dark hallway the wooden wall panelling looked black, and the sweeping staircase with broken banisters, led up to a cold shadow-filled emptiness beyond the dim natural daylight. The place smelt of dampness, ancient urine and the deep dank hopelessness of human misery.
“Course you know they only sent the really bad patients here, don’t you?” Archie told me matter-of-factly as we unpacked the tools.
“How do you mean ‘the really bad ones’?” I asked him.
“Arsonists, violent schizophrenics, seriously disturbed manic depressives, folks who were one step away from being vicious murderers,” Archie commented cheerfully. “I wouldn’t like to think about the people who’ve been within these walls. Number of them topped themselves, so I heard.”
So all morning we worked hard, dismantling and removing fireplaces, door handles, floorboards and doors. Then, after a quick snack, we investigated the rest of the building.
On an upper floor we crow-barred open a door to a room that looked as if had been locked up for years.
Inside was a large solid-looking leather covered chair, with huge leather straps on the arms and the legs. Beside it were other chairs and a desk, covered in what appeared to be ancient electrical equipment, old wiring and cables crisscrossing everywhere.
Archie sucked breath through his teeth as he picked up a peculiar kind of helmet that had wires attached.
“Electro Convulsive Therapy,” he said, holding the helmet above the head of an invisible inhabitant of the chair. “They used to practise it here in the old days. Strapped the poor bugger to this chair, jammed this helmet on his head, then fried his brain with thousands of volts.”
“Did it ever cure anyone?” I asked in amazement.
“They claimed it did,” he answered, “but in them days the poor patients were just at the doctors’ mercy. If they made mistakes no one knew or cared about it. God, Jamie, think of the misery and suffering there must have been in this room alone.”
“Not to mention the rest of the bloody place. I’m glad they’re knocking it down.”
“Hey Jamie, I’ve just realised this chair is just the job for that conversion you’re doing isn’t it? Why not take it?”
Archie was right. I was in the middle of doing a conversion job of a warehouse in Canterbury for an unpleasant character who was turning out to be the client from hell. In the face of much local opposition, Geoff Parsons was opening up a sex club. There was to be a ‘dungeon’ there for aficionados of bondage and sado masochism, and he had specially asked for a ‘punishment chair’ just like this, to feature in it, and getting this one would save me having one made to order. To my astonishment, he’d told me that the sex club’s clients were prepared to pay lots of money to be strapped down and tortured.
It was all a mystery to me, and frankly it struck me as about as repulsive as my oily reptile-like client, Geoffrey Parsons. Penny-pinching Parsons, had been a bastard to deal with from the start, and so far had only paid my initial fee, and was threatening to renege on our deal when it came to the final payment.
Ranley Down was demolished next day, and I finished my ill-starred conversion job on the following week, and, the sex club opened a month later, the ‘punishment chair’ in pride of place in the club’s much advertised ‘dungeon’. And, just as I’d expected, that swine Geoff Parsons had refused to pay the final tranche of the money, gloating, and telling me I’d have to sue him to get it.
A few weeks later, I almost missed the article in the local paper:
After much local objections when it opened recently , the ‘Adults Please, Sex Club’ has closed its doors for the last time. Last night it burned to the ground, but fortunately only the owner, Geoff Parsons, was on the premises. It seems he was alone there, strapped to the so-called ‘punishment chair’ to test it out when the fire began in another part of the building. Fire investigators have so far been unable to find what caused the blaze.
After his release Mr Parsons was shouting and screaming incoherently, having apparently lost his senses, and was unable to say who had strapped him there. Since that time he has been incarcerated in a secure psychiatric hospital, unable to communicate with anyone.