The London Magazine

Keeping Time

- Rachel Bower

Object Number: A634683. Life size wax head of a melancholy insane woman, England, 1910-1940 (British Science Museum, 2019).

The head has tangled, wild hair, rubbed bald at the back like a baby, rolling its head on its sheet, side to side, all night. I look up at it often, wonder why they display it here. N., next to me, is rocking. She lurches forwards and backwards all day, regular as a clockwork. She didn’t do this when they first brought her here. I watched her with hope, but she soon began to chime with the others. L. is pitching back and forth too, on the other side of the room. My body knows the swaying that comes with a baby: remembers that winter’s afternoon in my sister’s living room, newly slack body moving in front of the fire, hush baby hush. The ticking of the clock is different. I will not move to its beat; this is the pledge I have made to myself. Even so, it is always there, in the monumental tower above the wide front door, pulling us in like the tide.

The head is made from wax, life-size, a wooden pole at the neck. I wonder where the bulk of its body has gone, cold and clammy. I would like to torch it; watch the face contort, a melting mass of hair and wax. The label says it is a woman. The brows are raised at the bridge of the nose, questionin­g, terrified. There are white strands, among the brown, betraying the youth of the skin. There is no frown, no anger. This is a useful lesson: clever. It has taken me an age to learn, although it is impossible to know how long. The towering clock dictates our days but says nothing of such truths. This is an orderly hospital, as the matron never tires of telling us: we must be neat, punctual, polite. Even the nurses can see the clock tower from their little bedrooms. Its four broad faces say nothing of ageing, seasons, journeys, growth. Perhaps these are knots of comfort: the stubborn traces of snowdrops sprouting through packed soil, bumblebees clawing at tight pink buds, sunflowers burning the cheeks, fat blackberri­es staining the fingers, the dragon breath of winter.

The head is melancholy insane. Its lips turn down at the corners, the cheekbones are high. The glass eyes are much brighter than anything here.

I would like a mirror to compare my own eyes; even a spoon or knife would do. But the cutlery is locked away in a big box with shining brass handles and a sturdy lock. The matron keeps the keys – they don’t trust the nurses with this. Perhaps I will try to sneak a peek at myself at teatime, if we have soup, but I will be very careful not to let them see. I’d be back in the locked ward for certain, if they caught me peering into the hollows of the silverware. The clock faces are round and silvery like soup spoons. The tower looms high above the rest of the hospital, intimidati­ng visitors and new staff as they walk up the long front drive. The grounds are vast: green and sweeping. Some of the improved patients work the gardens. I have never been permitted, although they have started me on indoor work: polishing the floors, an occasional stint in the laundry. I like the heat and steam: the raw starched cleanlines­s of it all that tastes a bit like forgetting.

The forehead is lined, wrinkled deeply like a worried dog. The head looks down on our time of benevolenc­e: the days of manacles, blood-letting and chains have passed. Now, it is discipline, dining, mother’s little helper, routine. It is the yellowing Duopulse box. Three modes: Test, ECT 1, ECT 2. The three-pin plug and socket. O (off) I (on) indicated by the green pilot light. The output is indicated by the lemon light and by an audio signal for the duration of the stimulus. Six staff to hold a patient down. I know there are cogs and pipes and wheels and springs behind the clock. I wonder if it’s beautiful up there: if the crowd of movement complicate­s the relentless beat of the seconds. I think I can see the mechanism now, x-rayed through the milky glass of the face. The doctors see shadows behind the pearl of our eyes: gears, weights and anchors to be oiled and corrected. These are good times, keeping time, keeping it orderly.

The eyes of the head glitter below the receding hairline. The hair is tucked slightly behind the ears, dragging the face down. There is a pale green handkerchi­ef, knotted at the place where the throat would be. Patients should have nothing to eat or drink for six hours preceding treatment. Treatment may be carried out in an ordinary bed. An ECRTON mouth gag may be placed between the jaws to prevent them from opening. The stimulus time should be fixed at four seconds. I am buffing the dark wooden floors to a shine. The green screens are out, the bodies of patients thumping up and down on mattresses behind them, despite the nurses’ best efforts to hold them down by their shoulders and knees. They don’t

want broken bones. The thuds are sickening. The bilateral placement of electrodes gives the best results. It is difficult to maintain good contact with unilateral placement, as one electrode is in the hair. Hair is a good insulator.

The ears of the head are very realistic. They have listened to the clock tides for many moons. The waves reach for us all, forwards and backwards. I will not be drawn. I hear it in my bed, can see it ticking the bodies of the women who sleep next to me. There are ninety of us in this ward, packed like silver sardines under the light of the clock. I am sometimes tempted to close the wooden shutters against its beams, but know that I would be caught out of bed. I see myself, white nightdress, split down the back, rooted by the window as the matron walks towards me, blank-faced. I would end up rocking for that; must not allow it.

The head is silent. One of the thin white grooves beneath the eye looks wet. We each have a plain towel, folded precisely over the grey metal bar at the end of our beds. There should be screens between the baths when we wash. The entrance foyer is elaboratel­y tiled with black daises and pink roses. Vines that snake the toes. I sometimes glance up at the main turret during my daily outdoor exercise. Today it was shrouded in mist. The valley brimmed with steaming broth. Sandstone sucks water from the air greedily, glistening. Fog condenses on the cheeks, runs in rivulets. My hands wrinkled with the damp, as I followed S., in front. We could taste moist peat off the moors. The laugh of the blackbird was muffled, sodden in the grass.

The head is bloodless, thankful. It lives without the reminder of childlessn­ess, the monthly peeling, scurfing, dragging, of the womb. Three times, I missed this curse, twice it cruelly returned. The third became a moon belly, swelling for nine long moons. The second spilled after three: I foolishly thought we were safe. The stinging was the brightest red: I felt I must die. It flowed in a hot stream, like a full bladder finally burst, hollowing me out with each clench. I learnt that only through flesh can time be measured: the monthly black moons, the eternity of pain, the ripening of bellies, the milestones: now grasping, now walking, now talking.

The head is keeping time. I am starting to like it; its lack of pulse, its endurance. It is pliable but not fleshy. It should be possible to imprint the wax with a thumb or finger, but it does not yield to pleasure or pain. I put my cheek against the stone glossed walls of the corridor. There are ghosts

behind this coldness: women who came before us. I wish they would sing to me. I hear footsteps, the sound bouncing off the high ceilings and arches. It is impossible to identify the direction, so I straighten, pick up my pace: I have been tasked to make up tea trays for the nurses arriving for their shifts. I must not loiter; they will put me back to escorted. Without blood, the head cannot be pulled by the tides. We should look to it as an example, we must resist their tempo at all costs.

The head has tangled, wild hair, rubbed bald at the back like a baby. The head is made from wax, life-size, wooden pole at the neck. The head is melancholy insane. The forehead is lined, wrinkled deeply like a worried dog. The eyes of the head glitter below the receding hairline. The ears of the head are very realistic. The head is silent. The head is bloodless, thankful.

The head is keeping time.

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