Wednesday, February 10, 2010

you make me laugh

The buzzer buzzes and a second later the heavy green steel gate shudders once and trundles off to the left. Frank drives the ambulance up the ramp, turns at the top and backs in to the first bay of the custody suite. As we climb out an officer nods and smiles with a familiar, sharp-creased sense of complicity. He leads us to another green door, taps in a sequence of numbers, an internal bolt clanks, and we walk through an arched holding bay to another door at the far end. More numbers, another clank, and we reach the heart of the place, a bare, high vaulted room laid out in speckled green marmoleum, dominated by a raised control desk like the massive hub of a wheel lain on its side, each segment a counter marked left and right by dark screens, each counter with its own computer terminal and a small black camera set out in front, gazing outwards. A silhouetted pair of shoes marks the spot a person should stand in front of the counter, but around the hub disparate arrangements of people hang about in ones and twos and threes, snagged in their individual negotiations, leaning on the partitions or away, swapping things, chatting, swearing, staring at us as we come out of the bay and further into the room.

‘This way.’

He leads us over to a counter on the furthest side of the hub, presided over by an officer with such a small head and such spindly arms he could be a gigantic cellar spider in a starched white shirt, each limb moving independently, smoothly drawing out documents, answering phones, typing names - the whole business managed with dreadful efficiency from the pivot point of his squeaky black chair. He scrutinises us as we approach.

‘You’ve come for Phelan,’ he says. ‘Lovely. Here are the papers.’

He extends an arm about three metres in my direction, and drops into my hands a plain brown packet with the words: Section Papers printed in bold letters. ‘If you’d like to follow me.’ He rises noiselessly and high-steps ahead of us towards another steel door.

Phelan is curled up under a blanket on the bed shelf over against the far wall of the cell. The air is thick with parazone, stewed meat and tea, and the sweated layers of hours.
‘The ambulance is here to take you to Southview. I’ve got your things here in a bag.’ Phelan sits up. The officer produces from nowhere a clear plastic bag filled with a pair of rolled-up jeans, a mobile phone, a magazine and some coins – the whole collection secured at the top with a yellow plastic strip.
‘I’ll give it to the boys to look after. Meanwhile, can you be getting yourself ready, please?’
‘I want my phone,’ says Phelan, dropping the blanket. ‘You can’t keep my stuff. Give me my phone. Now.’
‘You’ll get it back at the hospital,’ says the officer. ‘Now be a good chap.’
‘I’ll sue you. I’ll sue you bastards.’
‘As you wish.’
The officer hands me the plastic bag.
‘Any escort?’ I ask him.
‘No. It won’t be necessary.’
Phelan slouches out into the corridor. By the time he has reached the threshold, the officer has re-wrapped him securely in the blanket, closed the door, found the key to lock it, tapped another officer on the shoulder to give instructions, checked his watch. ‘It really won’t be necessary,’ he says. Suddenly we are back in the hall. ‘Have a good trip.’


Phelan stares and frowns at me in the back of the truck.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
‘Warm enough?’
‘The journey will take about an hour,’ I say. ‘If there’s anything you need, let me know. Otherwise – you could doze a little, if you like. I’ll put some music on.’
I stand up to turn the music on in the back, then sit back down and pull out a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from my jacket pocket. Smooth it open it to where I left off.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

‘I want XFM.’
‘Put XFM on.’
‘We can’t get XFM.’
‘I want XFM.’
‘We just can’t get it.’
‘Put XFM on.’
‘Sorry, Phelan. I can do you Heart or Radio One. So I’m guessing Radio One.’
I smile at him.
He frowns and stares.
‘All right?’

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

‘Give me that,’ he says.
‘Well I’m not going to give you my book, am I? I’m reading it.’
‘Give it me.’
‘No. Sorry.’
His hair is cut into a pattern of tiny, square bunches, like the skin of a pineapple made out in black fabric, or a Google Earth shot of a place. It makes him seem uneven. He scratches the dry skin between the squares, then spends the next ten minutes trying to wrap his head in the blanket.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

The blanket falls away and he stares at me again.
‘All right, Phelan?’
‘What Giveaways have you got?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Freebies. You know. Giveaways.’ He scratches his nose. ‘I need envelopes. Glue. It’s an ambulance? You got glue, right?’
‘Not really.’
He sticks his arm out straight.
‘Wrap that,’ he says.
For a moment I’m confused. Does he mean for me to touch fists, like a handshake or something?
‘What do you mean, wrap that?’
‘Wrap it. Wrap it. In bandages. It’s an ambulance, right? You got bandages?’
‘Yep. We’ve got bandages. But I’m not going to waste any wrapping them round your arm.’
‘Why not? You got loads.’
‘Yes, but. It’d be a waste.’
After a second or two he drops his gaze onto the Section Papers lying on the trolley in front of me. As innocently as I can, I pick them up, fold them in half and put them in my pocket.

He frowns and stares.

Then suddenly he laughs, a forced, thin sound, and he flaps the blanket either side of him and rises up a little, like a great tatty duck on a lake.
‘You,’ he says. ‘You make me laugh.’
But the laugh fades as quickly as it came, and he settles back into a long stare. I try to break it with conversation, but the stare blasts through my best efforts. Eventually I smile in surrender again, and get back to the book.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

Suddenly Phelan is leaning forwards in his chair and his eyes have taken on a quicker, more glittering character.
‘I’ve got a suggestion,’ he whispers.
‘What’s that, then?’
‘Why don’t me and you kill your partner.’
‘I don’t think that’s such a great idea, Phelan.’
‘Go on. Why not? You’ve got a gun.’
‘Why would you want to kill Frank? He’s a lovely man.’
‘So? Who cares? Come on. Let’s do it.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Come on.’
Then suddenly that laugh again, glassy, high and brittle.
‘You!’ he cackles, settling back into the chair. ‘You make me laugh.’


lulu's missives said...

Hi Spence, so did you get to read anymore of your book?
Funny you should write about sectioning today, as we were discussing social workers ability to section.
I take it Frank is still alive and well?
xx Jo

bendy rebel said...

yikes thats pretty scary especially that they decided no escort was necessary

Susie said...

do you feel vulnerable in situations like this spence? or does it reach a stage where you've seen so much that you are used to it - but the i guess you can't really take these things for granted.

Did you get any further with the book yet?

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Jo

Not during that journey!

Sectioning's such a fraught area. We only see one little bit of it, too. Unpleasant often, but unavoidable.

Frank's good. Actually, I suspect he's indestructible. :0) x

I must admit when Phelan came out with his suggestion I mentally revised the police assurance that no escort was necessary. But despite his behaviour, Phelan actually went up to the unit quietly. It was all talk.

Hi Susie
I must admit I did feel vulnerable. I may act rough and tough, but I'm really just a kitten.

Thanks for all your comments! xx

bendy rebel said...

I know I'd have been worried if I'd have been there and I do have a little experience with people who have mental illnesses. My boyfriend has psychosis and he has made friends with a few people with the same condition as him and some with schizophrenia. I've met most of his friends and got on well with them although the paranoid talk from one of them about children being spys for the government was a little worrying!

Oh if you ever read my blog and I'm complaining about how hopeless everyone in the medical profession is that does exclude paramedics

I've had a few ambulance rides and have been very happy with my treatment...until I get to the hospital and am unfortunately out of their hands!

Wren said...

Your ability to describe people, settings, etc. simply wows me, Spence. I loved the description of the officer as a cellar spider. And "marmoleum." That one made me smile, and yet I know exactly the material you meant. What talent.

Was Phelan restrained in any way? I have to admit that a situation like that, with a patient who's obviously living in some other dimension, would be nerve-wracking to me. You may be a "kitten" but you're a brave one.

Fine writing. Thank you!

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey BR
It's difficult to know what to say sometimes, as the normal social rules don't seem to apply. So sudden changes of subject, extreme thoughts that you'd hardly admit to yourself let alone say out loud, long silences - all these things make it difficult to feel easy in those situations. At no point did Phelan strike me as being violent, though, so that was something. And I'm (fairly) confident that the police wouldn't knowingly expose us to danger.

Glad you've had a good experience of the ambulance so far. I suppose everyone in the Health service is under stress, and that's often the root cause of the bad stuff.

Cheers for the comment, BR!

Hi Wren
Thanks v much!
Marmoleum's a great word. Should be a breed of monkey. It's such a shame that often the nicest sounding words aren't necessarily the nicest or most interesting things. Chlamydia would be a lovely name for a flower, for example. Sarcoma sounds like an egyptian relic.

No, Phelan only had the seatbelt on (and he knew how to take it off). But it was okay. Apart from his strange behaviour and comments, he was all right.

And he had a ferocious kitten (reading Miss Brodie) to keep him in place!

:) xx

Deborah said...

Pity Miss Brodie wasn;t there in person - she would have kept him in his seat!

Spence Kennedy said...

He'd have probably kept the blanket over his head for the journey! x

Rach said...

I was really nervous for you there Spence, excellent writing as ever...hope things where ok...xx

Spence Kennedy said...

Cheers Rach
Yeah - I made it back alive, as did Frank, who it has to be said goes about with the sangfroid of a mafia hitman himself, and would never be fussed that murder was being plotted the other side of the hatch.

And I finished the book - excellent (by which I mean nice and short). xx