A cross word to madness

There’s something about filling in a crossword that satisfies: it confirms your knowledge of the world without you having to feel the complexities of it. Tackling crosswords dulls the senses – the noise, the smells, the sounds, but best of all the feelings, while sharpening the sense that you are control.

I know a man who once did crosswords every day; sometimes several in one sitting. He had a creamy green bench he’d painted in the years before his retirement and he crouched over it every morning musing over words as the newspaper grew crunchy in the sun. He had piles of coffee cups precariously perched against a world globe he’d once brought out during a conversation we had about geography. It had dulled in the sun and its base had rusted in the rain. 

Each day until the seven o’clock news he furrowed his brow and clicked his pen off and on as he challenged his internal thesaurus. He didn’t know how to use the internet so he had to rely on his own mind. 

A master wordsmith, he’d complete most of the daily crosswords, most of the weekend mega puzzles, though at times he’d admit that while ‘nuzzlebert’ was probably not a word it fit so well between 1 and 3 across that it ought to be. 

There were deaths, and regrets, and final notices filing through his every day over the years, but each time he’d return to his crosswords. 

He knew these, at least, were problems he could solve.

I once visited him and collected heavily yellowed sheets of paper that had blown around the backyard. Some of my collections were not too faded to make out the date they were printed, which is how I knew he’d started letting things go for quite some time. It was not that he was in want of care – he had (and still has) a loving wife who cared tenderly for him and the home, but this was his space.

I loved to visit him because we shared the love of words. We could sit for hours at a time racing to finish the enigmas in the spirit of both companionship and competition. There is something so easy about talking in separate words rather than collective ones.

I’m not sure whether lunacy grew in him over time or whether his madness was stayed by the incessant puzzle-solving. Which ever verb was correct, it got him.

When misery had been referred by every other name – wretchedness, melancholy and the rest – he stopped being able to intellectualise it, and instead began to feel it. 

He is in care now. I know I’ll have to visit his home sometime soon, and I wonder if I’ll find the last crossword he completed cowering somewhere behind the shed. Will it be sprawled with words that brought him to the brink? 2 across: Helpless: 1 down: Hopeless; 12 across:  Despair?

But I know there won’t be any clues to explain his insanity. The world’s greatest scientists can hardly keep a straight face when they try to explain the human mind. The best they can do is an educated guess. That in itself drives me wild with frustration. 

I need to help this friend but no solution seems to fit into a row of little neat boxes. The best I can do is furrow my brow, twirl my pen a few times and move on to the next clue, hoping the answer will fall into place as I go along.

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