Thursday, October 23, 2008

astrological twins

A tall guy vigorously kitted out in active leisure wear waves over to us from the kerbside up ahead. We pull level with him. He smiles as I climb out of the cab.
‘So this is what happened,’ he says. ‘Gerry and me found this guy lying face down in the middle of the pavement. He smells quite a bit of drink, and I guess you’d say he may well be intoxicated. I don’t think he’s hurt himself, but you’re the experts. Anyway, he wanted to go back in his flat. This one, here. So we helped him up and inside, and – well – that’s it. I hope we did the right thing in calling you. I hope it isn’t a waste of time.’
He touches me on the shoulder, generating such a voltage of goodwill I’m sure I feel a tingle there.
He leads us up some stone steps and into a warm and neatly prepossessing hallway. The door to the ground floor flat stands open, and we follow him in.
‘The ambulance are here, Gerry,’ he says to a similarly tall and waterproofed man, with a smile as invigorating as his friend.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he beams, then stands aside, and with a magician’s sweep of his arm says: ‘And this is Jim.’
Jim sits slumped forwards on the edge of a sofa. With his beany hat pulled low over his brow, his chin buried in the folds of his jacket, his hands hanging between his knees and his shoulders rolling down after them, he seems like the illustration for a grimly modern tarot card: The Beaten Man. He has a bottle of white wine by his leg; when I introduce myself and Rae, he picks it up and takes a long pull.
‘Please don’t drink any more just now, Jim.’
‘You can’t stop me.’
He puts the wine back down, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and resumes his position.
The first helpful guy looks across at me brightly.
‘Well. I guess you won’t be needing us any more,’ he says. ‘Good bye Jim. Nice to have met you.’
Gerry taps Jim on the shoulder. ‘We’re going now, but we’re leaving you in the capable hands of these lovely people.’ Jim looks up, bewildered. ‘Good bye, Jim.’ He holds out his hand. Jim shakes it. They leave, shutting the door behind them with a barely audible click.
‘Jim? Do you mind if I take a seat?’
He gestures vaguely to some collapsible chairs over by the sash window. I put one up for me and one for Rae.
‘Great. Now then. Tell me what’s happened today?’
Between periods of silence and the occasional, choking sob, the fragments of Jim’s story are laid out before us.

He has a drinking problem. He had an appointment today at the Alcohol Abuse Centre, but missed it. He has been drinking since this morning, went out to the corner shop first thing, came back, drank some more, then fell over in the street on the way back to the corner shop for another bottle.

Like an incriminating exhibit in a courtroom, there is an unopened pot of coleslaw (with bacon pieces) on top of today’s paper on the cluttered table in front of the sofa. I imagine Jim shuffling round the shop, coming to just sufficiently to pay for the wine, the newspaper and the coleslaw at the till, and then staggering out.

Jim says he has an American girlfriend who had to leave the country a few months ago when her visa ran out. He says she tried to kill herself last week. Jim can’t cope with any of this anymore. He knows the drinking isn’t helping, but he can’t stop.

He gestures to some bar bells over by the far wall.
‘I’m fit,’ he says. ‘I’m really fit for my age. I go to the gym. I work out. But now. Well – now I’m just whacked out and done for. I’ve let everyone down. And I’m embarrassed, with you lot being here.’

He takes another swig from the bottle.
‘Jim. I really must insist that you don’t drink whilst we’re here. To be honest it makes me feel stupid – the fact that we’ve been called out to you because you’ve had too much to drink, fallen over in the street, can’t get yourself up, and yet here you are carrying on. I’d be failing in my job if I let you do more of the thing that’s caused the problem.’
No response.
‘It’s the same as when we’re called out to people with breathing difficulties who want to spark up a fag. It makes a mockery of us being here. So please don’t do it. If you carry on drinking, we’ll just have to go.’
‘You can’t stop me drinking,’ he says. But at least he doesn’t make a grab for the bottle.
‘Okay. I just need to take some information,’ I say. ‘How old are you?’
‘Forty five.’
The same age as me.
‘And what’s your date of birth?’

It’s so unusual to come across someone with the same birthday as me that for a second I almost say it out loud. But I hesitate, and the hesitation seems to jump from me like the flash from a camera, lighting up the studio flat, the bar bells, the pot of coleslaw (with bacon pieces), the beany hat, the bottle of wine, the sprawl of letters from the Alcohol Abuse Centre, the unopened utility bills.
I want to shake his hand and say fancy that, born on the same day, the same year. I want to ask him what time he was born and where. I want to swap notes on the journey so far. But I worry that if I do tell him, me sitting here with a clipboard in my lap and a biro in my hand, Jim with his head down, irresistibly reaching out again now for that bottle of wine – well, I'm worried that it just won’t help at all.

8 comments:

Larry Lard said...

If you keep writing stuff like this

With his beany hat pulled low over his brow, his chin buried in the folds of his jacket, his hands hanging between his knees and his shoulders rolling down after them, he seems like the illustration for a grimly modern tarot card: The Beaten Man

and

But I worry that if I do tell him, me sitting here with a clipboard in my lap and a biro in my hand, Jim with his head down, irresistibly reaching out again now for that bottle of wine – well, I'm worried that it just won’t help at all.

and Tell Me Something Beautiful, I will have to make a new category in Bloglines for your blog, and call it 'Don't read at work in case they make you cry'.

Don't stop, though.

Tsitsi said...

There but for the grace of God...

Morpheus said...

Spence, I'm a regular reader, and I just wanted you to know that this one really was moving.

Anonymous said...

the paramedic who looked after my daughter last year when she had a seizure at school had the same birthday (not year, clearly, she was 6 at the time!) as her. I will toast his health on monday, his birthday. He was so kind to us.

loveinvienna said...

Very strange, one of those serendipitous moments... :)

You're right though, I doubt it would have helped as well. He'd have looked at you with your smart greens, clipboard and biro in hand, and felt even more depressed - not because you're purposefully rubbing his face in it (you're there because that's your job) but because he'll see what he could have been if he'd kept off the bottle.

Shame, but he isn't helping himself. "You can't stop me..." Seems to be the national motto at the moment, never mind 'Dieu et mon droit'!

Liv xxx

Spence Kennedy said...

Larry L - The other day my Mum said: 'Don't you get really depressed doing your job? Dealing with so many desperate people?' And I suppose it's true that for the most part, people don't call an ambulance unless something bad's happening.

You don't tend to get downcast at work because you're objectifying the experience as a work task (what does this patient need?, for example), and you're working as part of a team, which spreads the emotional burden.

Sometimes when I'm writing these things, though, I'm conscious of the tragic-factor, and worry that the anecdotes will just stack up into a great pile of doom, and get too burdensome to read. But I do find that by writing down these bleak little cases it also helps objectify them in some way. And I don't feel so bad, because although I haven't been able to do much at all for the patient, at least I've recorded it, and other people have read it, so it doesn't feel as if the moment has simply evaporated.

Thx for your comment!

Tsitsi, Morpheus, Anon, Liv - Thank you so much for your comments.

katharine said...

Also moved to tears about a post that at first glance is about a "something and nothing" job.

Brilliant writing.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks, K!

Jim was getting counselling at the Alcohol Centre, so at least he had some help in place. Still struggling, though. But I suppose at the end of the day, if he can't find the reasons and the strength within himself to ease off drinking and make whatever other changes he might need to improve his situation - well, all the help in the world won't be enough.

Frustrating for us, and tragic for him.