‘Cabbage Field on the Farm at St James’ Hospital,’ (c. 1941) painted by Edward King.Scroll down for Christine Lawrence’s story Inside Looking Out, inspired by this painting.
Cabbage Field on the Farm at St James’ Hospital. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©
Inside Looking Out
by Christine Lawrence
The sun’s too bright through the window. There are no curtains. Even at night it’s too bright when the moon is full. And it has been full, or nearly so, for the past few nights.
At least the sun is warm.
I look up and away from the window. I don’t like the window. There’s a crack there and I can hear the trees whispering to me through the gaps. But there’s a crack in the wall too, in the plaster. It has the shape of a lightning bolt – it looks like it’s making its way down the wall towards me like a step ladder from the ceiling. I wonder if there’s a way out through the ceiling. But, no, that’s just in my imagination. Sometimes I think that there’s something hiding in the crack, spying on me. I tried to fill the crack to stop them being able to see me. The only thing I had to do this with was the mashed potato and mushy mince on my plate so I used that. I’d been made to eat in here because they said I was too disturbed to sit in the dining room. I wasn’t allowed to have a knife and fork so they mashed up all my food. This was perfect for filling the crack in the wall but they caught me doing it and made me scrub it off with carbolic soap and water. And still the crack in the window is there, always whispering. I can’t stop that. The trees are always watching me, watching and whispering through the window.
The orderlies leave me alone in the room but come along and look through the window of my door at me – They are watching me too, checking, checking on me all the time.
I look out of the window, squint in the sunlight. I can see the trees, so tall and majestic, like sentries watching over us all. Watching over those working in the fields. I wish I was sitting in the field of cabbages, working along the rows, crouching in the dusty dirt with the others. I can almost smell the cabbages from here – wish I had that dirt under my fingernails. There’s a slight breeze ruffling the leaves with some kind of tantalising dance, scorning at me in its freedom.
I know what it’s like, working in the field. That was my job before. Before the trees started whispering at me. They wouldn’t let me be. I tried to tell them to stop, to leave me in peace. I liked the freedom of being outside in all weathers, loved the feel of rain on my face, running down my neck, cooling my desperate body. It was the only thing that kept me from going so far inside myself. And now, here I am, inside. All the time, inside.
I run my hands along the wall, feeling the zig-zag crack in the plaster. It’s my only friend now. I can see inside the wall if I put my face right up against the plaster. Lick it. It tastes salty. I smile. I know who’s living in there – little people with names and faces just like ours on the outside, inside. I mean, inside this place but outside of the wall itself. I’m not stupid – I know that it’s not possible for any of us to get inside the wall – but there are people in there. I can hear them talking. Perhaps they come from the trees, whispering through the crack in the window seeping through and creeping into the wall.
I want to go out but they’ll never let me into the fields again, will they? I sat in an office wrapped up in a blanket – or was it a strait-jacket.? The Superintendent sat on the far side of the desk, not looking at me, but writing. He wanted me to explain but how could I? The words to tell what was happening to me, what had happened to me in the past, were buried deep down somewhere and anyway I knew he was one of them. One of the enemy, against me in everything I did. And he knew what I was thinking. I could tell because he was writing down everything and I wasn’t even speaking yet. It’s safer to stay quiet. Say nothing. Think nothing.
I can see out of the window the old man sitting by the gate, his easel facing towards the lane. He’s painting the cabbages, rows and rows of cabbages. Why would he want to paint cabbages? And the trees which still move about in the breeze, he paints the trees too. I can just about make out from here the green on the canvas. I think he is lucky, free to do what he wants, even if it is only to paint cabbages and trees.
I liked the feel of the knife in my hand – the shiny, sharp knife, cutting through the cabbage stems at harvest time. I ran my finger along its blade sometimes, resisted the blade’s edge, enjoying the cold feel of steel against my skin. I could be still there now if only the trees hadn’t spoken to me, told me to cut myself. And I did cut myself – my left ear, just like a cabbage – I cut it off. It didn’t hurt. The orderly looking after us didn’t notice at first – he was sitting on the bench at the edge of the field, smoking and day-dreaming. Then he must have heard the screaming – I think it was me screaming, so he came across to look. I can’t remember any more about that day.
The superintendent said it was me. I couldn’t be trusted with knives any more. Not since I’d cut off my ear and stabbed the orderly.
I look at the door. It’s always locked. There’s a shadow across the window. It must be time for them to come and get me. They’re coming to take me to the treatment room. Well, they call it treatment but they don’t like me – they say I’m evil, but I’m not.
© Christine Lawrence (2017)
Christine is a semi-retired psychiatric nurse who worked in Knowle Hospital from the 1970s and in St. James’, Portsmouth as well as for several years in the community teams looking after people with Drug and Alcohol problems. Since retiring from nursing full time she has achieved a BA(hons) in English Literature and Creative Arts and an MA in Creative Writing, both from Portsmouth University. Her novel Caught in the Web was published in 2012 and she has facilitated Creative Writing groups at both Phoenix House drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit and at St. James’ Hospital mental health low secure unit, Portsmouth.
I am passionate about the history of mental health and was fascinated with the story of Edward King’s life and the poor way he was treated.
I chose the painting Cabbage Field on the Farm at St James’ because I could visualise the patients working in the fields. It reminded me of my younger years living in the grounds of Knowle hospital. We lived right next to a field and we would walk our dog across to the ‘boundary’ where the staff would walk the patients.
I found the process of writing the story quite moving, putting myself into the mind and emotions of a person who was locked up inside a room, looking out at the field of cabbages.
I learnt a lot about what life may have been like for Edward, both by the process of reaching inside my imagination, and in the research reading that I have done on the subject.Christine Lawrence
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.