Publication: 18 September 1976-11 December 1976
Artist: Phil Gascoine
Writer: Pat Mills
Four years ago Helen Ryan was diagnosed as having no resistance to germs. Since then, she has lived in a plastic bubble at Blackheath House under the care of Miss Vaal. Miss Vaal is always making notes in her black book and Helen wonders what is in that book. In all those four years, Helen’s parents have never visited, nor has Helen had any company except Miss Vaal and the nursing staff. Painting is one of the few things Helen is allowed to do, but Miss Vaal never shows Helen’s pictures to anyone either.
Helen feels fine now and longs to come out of the bubble or at least have some company. Miss Vaal brings in a group of girls to visit Helen, but they just tease and torment her. Unbeknown to Helen, Miss Vaal paid them to do so in the hope that Helen will become too frightened to seek company anymore. However, one of the girls, Linda Siggs, regrets what she did and sneaks back to Helen. She thinks it is daft for Helen to live in a bubble and encourages Helen to come out.
When Helen emerges, she does not die immediately from germs as Miss Vaal said. There are no ill effects at all. Helen comes to Linda’s school, where she paints a picture, “The Bubble People” (her imaginary friends while she was in the bubble). The teacher, Miss Williams, is struck by how talented Helen is and invites Helen to an after-school art class. Helen accepts with alacrity. Helen then goes back to the bubble and asks Linda to let her out again the next day.
However, Helen has not noticed there is a flower stuck in her hair, which alerts Miss Vaal to what she has done. She punishes Helen by enclosing her in darkness for two days without food. This punishment is meant to break Helen’s spirit and discourage her from wanting to leave the bubble again. And Linda’s bid to release Helen again comes unstuck when she is waylaid by the police. So Helen lets herself out, something she never had the nerve to do, and goes off to her art class. Helen is alarmed when she finds Miss Williams has a cold, and she believes she has no germ resistance. This has the other girls teasing her, including a jealous girl called Nina, and Helen runs off. She bumps into Linda, who has been released by the police. Linda, who does not believe there is anything wrong with Helen, persuades her not to go back to the bubble. When Miss Vaal finds out Helen has gone, she says there will be terrible consequences, and will deal with Helen harshly.
Helen goes back to Miss Williams, but the other girls still cause trouble. When Helen leaves, she is caught by the police, whom Miss Vaal called in. Miss Williams tries to rescue Helen, but the head, prompted by nasty Nina, tells the police to take Helen. However, Helen escapes the police with Linda’s help.
They sneak to Blackheath House to get hold of the black book to find out why Miss Vaal keeps Helen in the bubble. In Miss Vaal’s office, Helen is shocked to discover Miss Vaal had been spying on her in the bubble via a two way mirror. They find the book, which reveals that Helen’s immune system recovered three years back (the doctor must have misdiagnosed Helen and she in fact only had weakened resistance). The reason Miss Vaal has kept Helen in the bubble since then was to compile evidence for a report on how being cut off from the outside world affects a human. They realise Miss Vaal is insane and quickly leave, taking the book with them as evidence. Then Miss Vaal catches Linda, and Helen volunteers to return so Miss Vaal will release Linda. Linda goes back to tell Miss Williams what is going on. Miss Williams makes arrangements with Miss Vaal to go and see Helen. But Miss Vaal injects Helen with a drug to make her pretend she is happy with Miss Vaal. Miss Williams is fooled.
When Helen recovers from the drug, she escapes from the bubble with the aid of the black book – and for once it is Miss Vaal who is shut in the bubble! But Helen had to leave the black book behind in the bubble. And Miss Vaal warns her that she will come crawling back to the bubble because there is nothing else for her. Hmm, now what can Miss Vaal mean by that?
However, Helen finds Miss Williams and this time she succeeds in convincing her. Miss Williams persuades Helen to go and see her parents about the matter, and Linda comes too. Helen also finds a book has been written that is based on her Bubble People picture; it just needs her parents’ signature to say it is unaided.
Once they arrive, Linda takes off, feeling she is no longer needed – big mistake, as it turns out Helen still needs help. Unknown to Helen, there is another girl at her parents’ house who looks like her and is called Helen too.
Helen sees her father and tries to tell him she has recovered. But he treats her like a stranger and slams the door in her face. Then she sees the other Helen and realises her parents got another girl (a foster girl) to take her place. Helen then recalls what Miss Vaal said when she escaped, and wonders if this is what she meant. Meanwhile, Dad phones Miss Vaal; he did not believe Helen’s claims that she has recovered and is angry at Miss Vaal for the escape. We learn that Mrs Ryan had a bad breakdown following Helen’s incarceration. The foster-Helen is meant to keep Mrs Ryan happy and Dad does not want the real Helen to spoil things.
The police get back on Helen’s tail, and then she is spotted by her mother and foster-Helen. Mrs Ryan recognises Helen and embraces her. Helen tells her mother she has recovered, but the police say that Helen is an escaped patient who has imagined it all. Then Dad catches up and has Helen returned to the bubble. Helen finds that Miss Vaal has put in extra security, including a lock on the bubble door, to stop her escaping again.
Meanwhile, Mrs Ryan confronts her husband about what he has done. He justifies his actions as a clean break his wife needed because of her breakdown. Mrs Ryan does not look impressed. Moreover, she and foster-Helen are more inclined to believe Helen’s claims of recovery, but Mr Ryan does not listen. Then Miss Williams turns up over Helen’s book and her failed appointment with the publisher. When she hears what happened, she tells Mr Ryan that she is surprised at his attitude. She then tells them that Miss Vaal is insane and means to keep Helen imprisoned. She points out that Helen has been out of the bubble with no ill effects, which does support her claims of recovery. She also challenges Mr Ryan if he finds it more convenient to forget about Helen. This gets through to Mr Ryan and they all race off to Blackheath House to rescue Helen.
At Blackheath House, Helen tries to scare Miss Vaal into releasing her, but it backfires. Instead, Miss Vaal turns off the air supply to suffocate Helen in the bubble. The bubble collapses, but Helen escapes with the aid of a knife she used for sharpening pencils. Miss Vaal finds Helen has escaped and is in the middle of angrily assaulting her when the family arrive and catch her in the act. Miss Vaal is arrested, and Mr Ryan apologises to his daughter. They are now a reunited family and Helen has a sister as well (also named Helen – well, they will have to sort that one out). Helen catches up with Linda and asks her to come on holiday with them. Helen’s book is published and is making her famous.
“Girl in a Bubble” is no doubt one of Jinty’s most insidious, disturbing and frightening stories. It is all the more frightening because we know it is based on real life. In the days before bone marrow transplants, people with no resistance to germs really were encased in sterile plastic bubbles like this. The most famous case was David Vetter, “The Bubble Boy”, who had been confined to a plastic bubble since birth. The emotional and psychological effects on him were painted in a far rosier light in the media than they actually were. David eventually died because a bone marrow transplant had not been screened properly.
The blurb says that this story is eerie, and the moment we see Helen in the plastic bubble, we know immediately that the story will deliver on that. We have seen girls imprisoned in dungeons, prison cells, workhouses and so forth often enough – but plastic bubbles? That is not something you see every day except in science fiction films or medical programmes. It is no wonder that the girls who see Helen in the bubble find it weird and freaky. Those plastic gloves attached to the bubble that are used to deliver things to Helen – ugh, that really creeps you out! And then, when Helen discovers the two-way mirror which enables Miss Vaal to spy on her from her office, that really makes your skin crawl.
Even where real life bubble people were loved, they would suffer psychologically as a result of their isolation. So we can imagine the effects on Helen, who is being kept in deliberately isolated conditions and then inflicted with harsh treatment to keep her under control once she demands freedom. Her only friends are the imaginary Bubble People (who are sadly underdeveloped and only seen once, in Helen’s painting). Once Helen escapes from the bubble, we can see the effects the isolation has had on her. For example, she cannot paint a picture while the other girls are crowding around because she is so used to doing it alone. She does not have the tools to stand up to the girls who tease her either, and she bursts into tears. On the other hand, her confidence begins to grow as well. She could have left the bubble at any time but was too scared too. Then, after she is encouraged to do so once, desperation is strong enough for her to find the courage to release herself. It is also fortunate that there must have been some lapses in Miss Vaal’s vigil; she failed to spot Helen escaping on either occasion, despite the two-way mirror. Maybe she was too busy poring over her black book to notice?
Once we find out why the parents have not visited Helen in four years, we are deeply shocked at Mr Ryan’s conduct. He virtually abandoned Helen to her fate in order to spare his wife’s feelings? All right, so he would not want his wife to have another breakdown. And he probably did feel guilty about Helen – after all, it was Miss Williams’ sting at his conscience that finally galvanised him into action. Besides, we would not put it past Miss Vaal to pull a few dirty tricks to stop the Ryan parents visiting. Even so, his irresponsible, neglectful conduct is appalling. Moreover, he virtually threw Helen right back into the bubble – was it because he was really concerned about her life or was it to protect the cosy shell he had built around his wife? Or was he feeling embarrassed over his guilty conscience? Whatever he was thinking, he unwittingly condemned Helen to near-death when Miss Vaal tries to kill her.
The scenes (above) where Helen struggles to breathe and escape the plastic walls which are now collapsing in on her are truly terrifying. Everyone knows that plastic can suffocate you, and Helen finds the very experience of the plastic clinging to her horrible. Fortunately, another lapse in Miss Vaal’s vigilance – not removing the sharpening knife – came to the rescue. But the true rescue must go to Linda and Miss Williams, the only two people to show real common sense and perspective in this entire story. Linda showed it most of all when she said the bubble was daft and Helen did not need it – but little did she know how right she was there, or in encouraging Helen to come out of the bubble.