On Fitzmary two, the ward I lived on at The Bethlam Hospital, I met Christine, the tattooed woman.
Her hair was bleached as light as the sun, and her arms, chest, back and legs were adorned with lines and symbols, and the names of the people she had previously known.
She had the fairest skin, yet an angular and thrusting jut of her chin. She could cackle at you so loudly you’d wince to avoid her mirth, but she wouldn’t stop until the birds in the trees outside were jittering with annoyance. She was the kind of woman who’d glare at cats, until they relented from their feline coolness and approached sulkily.
I would help her bleach her hair, and I always marvelled at it’s thinness. Her mouth was as loud and vulgar as a tart, and she never resisted the chance to have a jab at anybody elses perceived weakness, but she would crumple like a discarded coat when one of her sons refused to come and visit her; and I knew she was haunted still by some of the names she had etched into her skin.
Her hands were inked black and dark purple, flowing lines and flower patterns faded into faces and skulls with diamonds glinting in their evils eyes. Their sight-line ran up her arms and down her chest, morphing into figures with wooden legs and snakes for hair.
Her body was a cacophony of vivacious spunk and scorn and when her eyes glittered and flashed as she told her tales, I knew she was alive herself, somewhere on her skin, partying with the characters she slept with every night; the activity of a past existence still touching her.
But the skin underneath was so pale; and when you caught her early morning without the dark smudges she applied liberally around her eyes and across her cheeks and lips, her face had ghosts surrounding it. She once told me her most treasured tattoo’s were the ones of her sons names, tattooed on her back, surrounded by tiny pale pink hearts.
She cried when they ignored her frantic late night telephone calls, and spent much of her time entirely certain she was princess Diana; another incantation of the beautiful, beloved nations sweetheart. She adamantly refused to listen to reason, pleads, tears; but would defend me viciously when i was having a bad night with my own demons.
“If anybody comes near my girl i’ll gut them like a fish!” she told the other befuddled and bemused inhabitants of the smoking room at 6am after she found me there at the end of a bad night. “Everybody leaves her alone and gives her some goddam space.” She cuddled me and told me I was a petal, and that everything was going to be alright.
She led me away from the wardly who approached me with more meds, and tucked me into bed; smoothed my hair back behind my ear and soothed my forehead. “Don’t know worry chuck,” she said, and the pirate on her chest leered at me disarmingly, “they’ll never break us down, will they now? Any of them; they’ll never break us down, we’re too goddam strong for that.”
I nodded and smiled fadedly, the meds were already in my system and the colours on her skin seemed to be getting brighter. Her tattoos were glowing and pulsing with some ethereal kind of current or electric field, and all the lines and sections of her designs were joining up and connecting so that her entire body was radiating some kind of crazy cosmic charge.
Her lip-stick had smeared onto her tooth slightly, and she hadn’t put her face on yet so her eyes were still dark with the nights pale shade.
I saw her lift her head as I dropped into sleep, and then a split second later I swear I saw the Medusa on her chest drop me a wink as I slipped away from consciousness finally, and left her below and behind and alone.