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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Crown of Thorns

A crown of thorns is the image David sees all the time. He imagines the head, with the crown hovering above it, only moments before it descends. He mouths it, his silent lips forming the vowels of its name. He walks along the paths and the image travels with him, always within reach. He fashions it with empty hands, winding the supple stems together, mindful of the pricking thorns. The crown is his secret, his lover, exclusively his; he has never spoken of it to anyone. He carries it in a secret place, hidden among the other pictures in his mind. Everything else shifts, the inner forms revolve around each other and pass into the past. Bed become breakfast, and breakfast becomes the workshop, the workshop turns slowly around the face of the clock; but the crown of thorns remains.

The green morning light seeps through the curtains and adds an illusion of colour to the ward. David’s eyes are closed, his mouth open. He is rigid, experiencing the change of light in darkness. The choleric nurse stomps down the centre aisle. “Time to get up, gentlemen,” she shouts. “Time to rise.” David keeps his eyes closed. He can see it all in a photograph, a moving photograph. The nurse has a moustache. The crown of thorns is an inset to the photograph, bound to the bottom right hand corner. David moves the crown around; first to hover over the head of the nurse, and then to rest on her chest. It will be safest there. No one ever looks at themself.

That is one of the things David has learned here, in this place. No one over looks at themself. In the old days, when he first came here, they used to talk to you. They wanted to find the crown, they even knew where it was. But they didn’t know what it was. “What’s inside your head?” the psychiatrist used to say. “What are you thinking about?” And David described the pictures in detail, only missing out the crown. He learned to put the crown on the psychiatrist’s chest, and it was completely safe. No one ever looks at themself.

At the table he spoons cereal into his mouth. One of the lights is flickering and David watches it. It is a long dead tube with only a portion of one end fighting for life. Fighting uselessly. It whines, and flickers again, then catches its breath and holds its partial glow in suspension. But not for long. He remembers when the tubes were installed, many years ago, to replace the old hanging ceiling lights. The ward was painted at the same time. He runs the spoon round the rim of the bowl, collecting the last crumbs of cereal, and puts them into his mouth. Then he sits back, pushing the bowl away.

Most of them sit round the wall waiting for the bell to ring. Spider tries to climb the wall, and Big Neal marches up and down the ward making the sound of a trumpet. He thinks he’s the Salvation Army.

The tube finally dies.

The bell rings and they form into groups. David takes the crown from the nurse’s chest and bears it carefully before him. They leave the ward and move slowly along the corridor, out into the thin morning. It’ll be the Engineering Workshop today. It’s always Engineering or Electric treatment, and David doesn’t have the treatment any more. He’s not allowed in the treatment room. He has to treat himself.

The metal chairs are stacked in twenties. David knows what to do. He takes a strip of the black emery paper and begins removing the rust. The chairs have to shine. He has made them shine before.

David blocks out the picture of the others drinking tea. He sees his father in a long cassock giving bread and wine to the communicants. This is the body and the blood. The rust spills red over his fingers. His mother is saying: We all have burdens, David. It’s His way. He was scourged, mocked, given a crown of thorns. But He took up the cross with courage; and we have to do the same.

The Engineering Workshop is dirty. There are cobwebs on the ceiling. One end of the shed is piled with rubbish. Occasionally they clear it out; loading wheelbarrows for the tip. There is a coil of barbed wire and several broken chairs. When the nurse goes out they all stop work. David tears his strip of black emery paper into eight useless pieces.

Supper is poached egg. The hanging tube has been replaced during the day and shines with a clod white light. The plates are cleared before the visitors come, and everyone is straightened up. Big Neal has a tie put on, and Spider is pulled off the wall and made to comb his hair. He cries when they take him off the wall. The ones who smoke are given a cigarette.

Spider and Neal are both married, but they don’t know their wives. Big Neal is almost blind anyway. He’s the Salvation Army. Their wives sit together and talk to each other. It’s the same every night. They talk to each other and to the nurses. Then they go home together on the bus.

David goes to the lavatory while the visitors are in the ward. He takes the coil of barbed wire out from the front of his shirt. The barbs have stuck into his chest and small drops of blood have formed a circle. This is the body and the blood. He plaits the wire together, winding the stems around each other, mindful of the pricking thorns. There is a ferment inside him, a chaffing restlessness which impedes his fingers. His hands fly ahead of his thoughts, tearing their wings on the hooked pikes. There is no pain, only a racing, a tumultuous certainty.

When it is done he presses it onto his head, pulling it down over the brow, almost to his eyes. The barbs plough bloody furrows in the ground of his flesh, and he feels like Lent. Like the church felt in Lent. He brushes the blood from his eyes and walks from the lavatory.

No one stops him in the ward. The nurse is talking to Spider’s wife. David goes to the wall socket and inserts the two hanging ends of the crown of thorns into the square holes. There is a flash of light and David’s body is transfigured by a rippling motion from head to feet. There is a smell of ash.

Spider’s wife screams and the nurses races for the telephone. Spider closes on the wall and Big Neal lifts a golden trumpet to his lips.