The drunken peasants dressed in smocks of red.
Come on, no pity brothers; get your whips.
They beat the horse until the beast was dead,
A fat faced woman cracked some nuts and laughed.
The drunken peasants dressed in smocks of red.
The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh
To be honest with you, I only ever tried to hang myself once. And I need to make it clear that it wasn’t even my fault.
Apparently, the social workers need to have a little chat with the doctors. They need to decide if I’m well enough to go home and look after my daughter, Carys. So here I am — sitting on my hospital bed waiting to find out if I can go home today. They shouldn’t be too long… Apparently.
“Do you want to order food for tonight, Evelyn, my lovely?” a nurse asks me. “You know, just in case,” she adds as if trying to be kind.
To be honest with you, I just need to go home. She looks at me as if waiting for a response. But I can’t reply because I simply can’t countenance just in case. I just need to go home. I simply have to. I look at her. She looks at me. I hug my knees closer to my chest. And try to cover my unshaven legs with the hospital blanket. I must get back to Carys.
“Well, my lovely, I’ll just leave the menu for you to fill in. You know, just in case,” she says, as she takes her leave in her fat body that needs to be released into a much larger uniform.
To be honest with you, I can’t believe I’m here. I suppose I have to admit things didn’t go as planned after I married a farmer, Aneurin Lewis. Nye the Bwlch he’s known as. Handsome man he was when we first met. Looked like a surfer from California with his blonde hair, he did.
See, the thing is like, I wanted an organic farm. Cabbages, potatoes, carrots, asparagus, that sort of thing. It wasn’t my idea to set up what ended up as the most significant cannabis factory in Wales. Not my words, the Evening Post described it so. I doubt that was the case as I’m sure there must have been bigger farms elsewhere at some point or other. Blame the government, I do. And supermarkets for the paltry price of lamb. Anyway, Nye got ten years. And me? I expect the only reason I escaped prison was because I was pregnant. Had to open the farm to campers to get the money coming in, I did.
So here I am, sitting on my hospital bed, and I have to tell you, my room seems sort of different today: hope filled. The walls are whitewashed. Sanatorium white. Calm they are. On the far wall is a white ceramic sink with tall shiny metal taps. You know, the “H” style taps you get in hospitals. The toilet is next to the sink and has one of those old fashioned high up cisterns with a long metal chain dangling limp armed from its side. In this case, one could really say pulled the chain as people mostly still say when flushing these days when, instead, they might more properly say pressed the lever, pushed the button, or, in more modern places, waved a hand over the sensor. I always think the old high cisterned toilets appear nicer than the modern ones, don’t you?
I was convinced there was a metal flap in the door that faced the foot of my metal-framed bed. But, curiously, the flap isn’t there today. And the hosepipe that is slung onto a metal grille on the floor no longer resembles a coiled-up serpent. The pizza and one piece of broccoli sit cold on a pink plastic plate. I mean, who would even order that combination on their hospital order sheet? At least there should be two broccoli stalks, and chocolate sponge and pink custard washed down with tea in a short thick cup.
The well washed, printed letters on my sheets try to claim their connection to GWCW County Lunatic Asylum. I hope I’m not in the nuthouse. I call it the nuthouse because it isn’t nice to say lunatic asylum. You know hospital laundries, though, always mixing up sheets they are, so, for all I know, I’m intubated flat on my back in ICU hallucinating with anaesthetic dreams. If I’m sectioned, though, I hope my friends don’t find out. But, I expect they all know by now. You know, coming from a small village in Wales and all that. Probably had me down for all sorts when they found out they did: shouting in the library, jumping on the Bowling Green (that wasn’t me), singing on the bus, sticking my tongue to the freezer in Jones the Grocer’s shop… Bet they haven’t stopped pissing themselves laughing at me.
I expect I appear okay at the moment. The nurses told me I’m looking better. Earlier this morning, the nurse escorted me to the bathroom for a shower, where I washed my hair with watery hospital regulation green shampoo. But it did the job. My hair looks blonde again —fluffy even — no longer grease darkened mousey brown.
I applied some makeup lent to me by nurse Just in Case. Her real name is Jean; it says so on her badge. Nice enough woman, though.
I am still wearing a hospital gown. You know, the type that needs tying at the back, and you have to hold it in place when you walk, or else you will be showing your backside to the whole ward? Come to think of it… where are my clothes?
The thing is, like, I am not even the sort of person this sort of thing should happen to. Proper chapel goer me. My real passion is ancient history. Always has been since I discovered the ancient history section in Cwmafan Library. I fantasised about becoming rich and famous by writing just one historical novel. But, after Carys was born, came a bit obsessed with writing, I did. Not concentrating properly and certainly not having half as much sleep as I needed or wanted. And with Nye not being around… well… eight months he"d been away when the incident happened.
I remember arriving at the hospital. Bit hysterical I was at first, like. Telling you now, though, thought they were trying to kill me, I did.
“Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani,” I was repeatedly shouting. Although Christ only knows why I would say that. Or to whom (whom — as if — Cwmafan junior school I went to). Lucky to learn how not to set fire to the rugby club on the way home from school I was, let alone grammar and punctuation!
When I calmed down, which was after I thought they had stabbed me in my thigh with a ceremonial blade, I truly believed my death was imminent. I just couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t see. Nothing. Well, I say nothing, but I knew that it was daytime because I could see a red glow, you know, like when you close your eyes in the sunshine. Bemused, I was.
When I didn’t die, I prodded my eyelids and believed they were stuck down with what felt to be caviar. Look, I admit I have never touched caviar, but, I suppose, if I ever did, I bet it would feel just the same.
Using my forefingers and my thumbs, I was able to prise open my eyelids. It was slow going until they burst apart like exploding bunchberries. Whoosh! Out came a legion of tiny demons not much bigger than pinheads. Some landed on the floor, some in my lap, and some by my feet. Awesome, it was as I watched them go. With their tiny red heads and their tiny red bodies, all covered in what was, to them, humungous blobs of caviar. To me, however, the salted roe was its normal small size. Some of the creatures slid down the bedpost, some climbed down my legs, and others held hands as they skipped towards the door where they deftly threw themselves sideways onto the floor, skidded under the doorway and disappeared into the hallway beyond.
I brushed myself down with my bare hands. The stragglers tumbled to the floor, skidding and sliding as they followed the others out through the gap at the foot of the door. Then I closed my mouth because I had been gawping like a tetanus patient. Do I remember being shocked or frightened at the time? No. The strange thing was, it all seemed perfectly reasonable.
I remember waking up in the hospital the next morning. But, at the time, I didn’t know it was a hospital. I doubt I could have told you what year it was or what planet it was either. Come to think of it, though, must have thought I was on planet Earth because I actually believed I was in Nineveh when Jonah — you know, Jonah, as in Jonah and the Whale — was telling people to repent.
I thought I was locked up in my room that was full of Eastern promise. My bed was underneath the only window so high up I couldn’t see the garden below, not even if I stood on my bed. But a branch of a poplar tree jiggled catkins against my window to let me know it was spring. Somehow, I distinctly sensed the Biblical scene outside.
I truly believed Jonah was crouched outside my window. Giving me ideas, he was. I heard his voice, just a whisper at first, as it coiled its way up the poplar tree. Then I heard him again. Loud and clear.
“Repent, repent,” he said.
He sounded a bit like a whale baying like a donkey drowning in the sea. But there was no sea. Only the river Tigris. I think — talking Bible terms here like — I was incarcerated in the year 670 BC. But I wouldn’t have known that at the time, would I? …Because Christ hadn’t been born. See, still some thinking left in me. Told me to wear a sackcloth and to cover myself in ashes Jonah did.
“So how do I repent, Jonah?” I asked.
His voice returned to me via the coloured musical notes that seeped through my window.
“Hang yourself by your throat, and you may swim in the pools of Nineveh,” he said with more than a wash of enticement in his voice.
Now you have to understand that the pools appeared deeply inviting. Utterly beguiling phantasmagorical visions of Nineveh swirled around inside my head, and warm desert air puffed dust, the like of which deposited the grains of sand between my toes, making the dive into the water somewhat confusing as to whether it was my feet or my head which delighted most in the cooling waters. My fingers traced a smooth line over the undulating bulges of the pool’s glazed tiles, and where the surrounding plaster, or whatever it was the ancients used to cement their tiles in place, changed to chalky rough, my hand felt it with equal materiality. As I swear, I thought it was all certifiable and not illusive images.
I am telling you, I felt swaddled by the luxurious scent of azure, echoic lapping sounds that rose from the courtyard pool below my window. Magical sounds interrupted only by children’s shouts as they threw and caught golden orbs before settling, backs against the wall, to focus on making daisy chains for offering their parents who"d been working all day long.
When the rains came, I was convinced the stepped earth banks of Nineveh’s hanging gardens released distinctly pleasant cinnamon tones that blended nicely with notes of bog myrtle, which I have to say offered me swathes of ecclesiastical joy. I promised myself I would rip off the heads of a chatting clique of hollyhocks just because they nattered too much and planned to reward myself for their demise with armfuls of damson blossom and blooms of Batchelor’s button and St Barnaby’s thistle.
I can’t remember exactly why, but I was irritated by citizens who ambled along the garden’s meandering pathways. Perhaps it was because I, too, desired to stroll through the gardens and loll in lush meadows beyond the city walls. Then, I knew with all my heart, it was I who should suffer to lounge in the sublime scent of summer evenings and feast on one-centimetre squared cubes of iced pink Turkish delight. I then reminded myself to kill small insects with my footsteps. No reason like.
A clattering noise came from the corridor. I looked out of the flap in my door, but the corridor was empty. “Get me The Epic of Gilgamesh,” I shouted to my captors. I could hardly believe the coincidence when I found a copy disguised as a New Testament Bible on the cabinet at the side of my bed.
Suspicious at first I was when someone came into my room and offered to read to me. He promised not to kill me. And then, oh how we laughed as we read the ancient Sumerian text. We slapped our thighs and jostled our shoulders. And we laughed like we were three joints in, smoking Nye’s best organic cannabis.
Oh, I haven’t told you about the incident, have I? That’s how I got here, see. I went into Nye’s special mushroom patch and gorged on about fifty golden tops. They didn’t even taste nice. I suppose I was lucky. It was the delivery man supplying daffodils from the Scilly Isles who found me standing at the edge of my well. Shouting I was, about how I had missed the overladen ferry from Acheron to Oban. Daffodil man’s eye whites were mucous green, and his skin a light shade of yellowy-orange, which was a side effect of overdosing on whopping amounts of sweet potatoes. Either that or liver cancer.
He undertook his rescue mission with utmost seriousness and imparted his version of events to the ambulance men, who were in a favourable mood because they"d responded to the emergency within seven minutes, thus fulfilling their eight-minute target. They, in turn, recorded everything on A4 paper attached to a clipboard containing details of only their most interesting cases. To be clear, the ambulance men used a particularly sharp pencil because a biro was not the sort of implement suited to note such delicate information.
I feel like I have been in here for so long. Since the beginning of time. But, in reality, I have only been here for two nights. I think. It’s hard to tell precisely, though. But you know… mushrooms, shrooms, psilocybin semilanceata, can do that to a person: extend or shorten time. You can also get flashbacks of the event. But let me tell you about this bit…
I knew my room was approximately 523 centimetres by 496 centimetres. Okay, maybe to you, it seems like I measured it. I did. I had had the marvellous idea that I should measure the floor with my rosary beads. And that would become my repentance or whatever Jonah wanted from me. Each of the beads was exactly one centimetre rounded up into little balls of wood. Carved with grotesque images of pythons, they were. I couldn’t describe them in detail because I dared not make eye contact with the serpents. You have to understand that despite their outward appearance and form, it was pretty dangerous for me at the time because just one sudden move from me and they could have devoured me in a flash. Snap! Swallow! Gone! I had to lie down on the floor to measure: slowly and carefully, inch by inch. I then had to call through the flap in the door to ask a nurse for a calculator to convert the measurements back into centimetres.
But there was no nurse. What I saw, strutting up and down the corridor, was a fine healthy creature bearing the head of a man supported by the body of an ox, ornamented with brown feathered wings and curls of discarded wood shavings for a beard. Small for an ox it was, about the size of a Shetland pony, but it had all the swagger of a prize bull. And then, I just knew… his name was Mr Lamassu.
From a distance, Mr Lamassu brought to mind an ivory netsuke I’d once seen at The British Museum, one depicting the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant. However, the creatures I saw clambering over Mr Lamassu weren’t the little men from the story but the very same demons that had fallen from my eyes.
In a very short time indeed, each demon had grown to about the size of my thumb, and I fully understood these devilish swarms had the potential to be as dangerous as children without rules. But, for the short time I observed them, they were having the time of their tiny lives riding rodeo-style on the creature’s back. And, as they made their way down the corridor before falling from sight, turning left as they did en route to the main reception, my overall feeling was one of slight disappointment. The sort one experiences when your children leave you in preference for their friends who wear un-ironed clothes or jeans with holes not purposely torn by designers.
I then lay on my bed. I stared at an insouciant light bulb that hung from a central wire on my ceiling. Suddenly, just because of my gaze, the bulb stirred, and it began to generate energy, and the longer I stared, the greater the energy force grew. I admit I enjoyed my newfound power. Regrettably, though, this joy was soon thwarted when a slight drop in room temperature alerted me to the fact that somewhere between the lightbulb and the bulges in the wall, a pellucid numinous force was darting about, taking great delight in observing my every move. This was confirmed when I moved my head a touch to the right causing the room temperature to shoot back to the original ambience at speed not humanly possible. But, strangely, I was not afraid of the technological advances, mainly because, like radio or television signals, I didn’t fully understand them. By coincidence, during its observation of me, the unnatural force used a similar sharp pencil as used by the ambulance men. Deep purple in colour too.
All became quiet. The lowering of the evening sun shaded the leaves, and as the sky dimmed to granite flecked charcoal, the most delicate plucking of guitar strings blew cobweb soft notes high into the air. No tune at first, but then a melody formed: a simple lovely melody. And I began to hum softly. I stood up, wrapped my arms around myself and swayed in time to the music. I looked out into the corridor again and watched as a dying lioness crawled straight from the gates of Nineveh with fresh arrows in her back. Then I reached for the light and laughed.
Well, that is what Jean told me I reckoned was happening. I was embarrassed when she told me. But what pained me, more than anything, was the reality of not being allowed to be with Carys.
The nurses have been telling me not to worry and that everything will probably be all-right. But I’m telling you now that I feel sick. You know, the feeling you get when you are waiting for some news — like when your husband gets ten years — type of sick?
As for hanging myself… Well, I don’t think that I actually tried. Looking back, I suppose I only imagined (rather than enacted) swinging my sheets up to the lightbulb. Anyway, I couldn’t have made a proper attempt, even if I tried, because the nurses tell me they were with me the whole time. Brilliant they were from cock-a-doodle-doo in the morning to the hoot of the evening when handing over to the night staff who seemed to have a good belching hour that lasted from two in the morning until at least four when the sun began to rise. And don’t get all persnickety with me over time.
But don’t worry about me because a little voice inside me tells me I am getting better. Anyway, must go, the nurses are chatting outside my room, and I am excited to let them know that I’m not going to listen to Moses. See, I haven’t trusted Moses since he convinced me to take the magic mushrooms in the first place. Got the mother wit, I have. No flies on me.
Someone knocks on my door and unlocks it straight away, proving the knock to be a warning rather than a request to enter.
“You must stop throwing your clothes out of the window,” Jean says. “Jonah isn’t telling you to do anything, my lovely. And how many times a day must I remind you that Carys can’t visit you. Because…"
And I hug my knees close to my chest and rock backwards and forwards. Because I remember.
About the Author
Catherine Potter recently graduated from Lancaster University with a Creative Writing Masters and will soon begin a Ph.D. at Aberdeen University. Catherine lives in Surrey, England with her husband, four sons and three cream cats. She is is old enough to no longer be ashamed to admit her hobbies are reading and writing and is particularly proud she’s never won anything in sports.