Wednesday, June 08, 2011

the long walk

Bernard is standing waiting. He waves and I head the car that way, parking up as best I can in the limited space available. I’m glad he’s there to show me where to go; there are no numbers in this street, an urban ravine of workshops, garages, mews flats and studios, the shameful back exits to a dozen restaurants and shops. A kitchen porter in black and white check trousers smokes watchfully from an alcove. A loud crash and then swearing and laughter from a yard to my left. Seagulls squabbling over scraps. The smell of salt spray, diesel and garbage juice.
‘This way,’ says Bernard. He turns and leads me across a patio yard crowded with recycling bins and overalls flapping on a line to a door propped open with a metal bucket. ‘Up here. Mind your head.’ A plain grey staircase, rising steeply two storeys to an equally plain fire door. ‘He’s very drunk.’

A two room flat, divided three dimensionally like a cake: length-ways into galley kitchen and living room, height-ways by a mezzanine sleeping compartment, a metal ladder propped against it leading up to a plain mattress and a reading lamp. The room is strewn with debris – books, bottles, clothes, and face down amongst it all, Jarl, dry-crying on a sofa.
‘Jarl? The ambulance is here.’
He rolls onto his back and squints up at us both.
‘I don’t want no amb’lance,’ he says, his hand dropping from his face as abruptly as his grief. ‘What for I need amb’lance? Bernard? What you do?’
‘You’re not well. You need help.’
Jarl struggles to sit himself more upright. A bottle of vodka clumps down onto the carpet, and as Jarl reaches out a hand to catch it he almost follows.
‘Steady, mate.’
Bernard shakes his head. ‘You wouldn’t believe he was sober for six months,’ he says. ‘Weren’t you?’
‘I want rehab. You send me rehab?’
‘I think maybe that’d be a good idea, Jarl, but that’s something you’ll have to do through your GP. Anyway – look – we’ll come to that. Let’s have a chat first.’
‘No. I want rehab, not GP.’ He struggles to sit up, and when he can support himself and free his right hand sufficiently, salutes. ‘Løytnant, Norwegian Navy, my friend. Yah. Is true. The Løytnant - he says, Good Luck, nice life, and so on and so forth. Come. Sit down, have drink with me and I tell you. Come. Come.’ He bounces around on the sofa pushing magazines and ripped letters aside. Bernard quietly picks the bottle up off the floor and puts it in the sink with a nest of empties.
‘Jarl tries hard, but I’m afraid it’s still a problem,’ he says.
Somehow Jarl has found himself in a sitting position. He slumps forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and suddenly focuses on a spilled bag of Haribo bears amongst the scattered ash, letters and bottles on the coffee table. He picks one up, inspects it carefully, dusts it off.
‘The Løytnant is used to making important decisions, as you can see. Red, I think, today.’ He pops it in his mouth.
‘So. Tell me why the ambulance has been called today?’
‘He was having an anxiety attack’ says Bernard. ‘I wasn’t sure. It looked bad. But he seems to have come round a bit now. I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’
‘Who is this?’ says Jarl, chewing loudly. ‘Policeman?’
‘It’s the ambulance, Jarl. Bernard was worried about you.’
He pats the air in front of his face and collapses back on the sofa. ‘Pah. All I want is rehab. Then my life can begin again.’
‘Do you mind if I take your blood pressure and whatnot? Just to make sure everything’s okay?’
He struggles up again and holds out his left arm – a lean, square-wristed limb, brown and powerful.
‘Jarl is a marine engineer, too.’
‘Really?’
He nods.
‘He’s had an amazing life. Do you know he walked here from Jakarta?’
‘From Jakarta?’
‘How long you think?’ says Jarl, finding a crooked cigarette on the sofa with his free hand and putting it in his mouth. ‘How long?’
‘From Jakarta? I don’t know. Years, I should think.’
‘Five. Five years.’
‘That’s incredible.’
I take the BP cuff off his arm. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, and then salutes again.
‘Løytnant, Norwegian navy. We can do anything.’
For the first time I notice all the pictures of yachts and sailing ships around the flat: schooners, clippers, fishing smacks, a Chinese Junk.
‘Did you work on all these?’
He shrugs, and then frowns as he struggles to bring the tip of his cigarette into the flame of the lighter.
In amongst the photos there is a picture drawn by a child – a happy man, smiling with a crazy grid pattern of teeth, waving his peaked cap at the sun with a stick arm. The paper is curled with age. Next to the picture, a map of the world.
‘He’s a clever man,’ says Bernard. ‘He’s written books.’
Jarl lies back down on the sofa.
‘What sort of books are they, Jarl?’
‘Philosophy. You think this thing. If all politician got rid of – shoom! – then every…then all the people they would come together and understand each other and would respect the culture. I’ve seen this things. I’ve thought about it a lot.’
I finish writing the paperwork.
‘You take me rehab now?’
‘No, Jarl. I’m going to refer you back to your GP.’
‘Pah. But come, please - shake. Løytnant, Norwegian Navy. With thanks.’
He almost crushes my hand.
As I turn to go I notice that the ladder isn’t fixed at the top.
‘I wouldn’t fancy going up that,’ I say. ‘Especially after a few drinks.’
Bernard laughs.
‘He’s used to ladders,’ he says.

7 comments:

jacksofbuxton said...

Seems like a bit of a character Spence.Also sounds like he's a little institutionalised as well.

Still,nice to deal with a philosophical drunk for a change.

Beautifully written as ever.

Spence said...

He was great - a much more interesting & entertaining class of drunk than I've been getting of late. It's a shame the vodka has taken over his life to this extent, but I suppose the navy is a bit notorious for that. At least he had a friend looking out for him - so I hope he gets the rehab he wants.

Hope everything's good with you & yours, JoB.

jacksofbuxton said...

All good and nothing bad thanks Spence.

Trust you're all well.

Anonymous said...

This piece is incredibly sad; It really exemplifies the way alcohol can destroy so much potential.

I hope he manages to get into rehab and it works for him.

Spence said...

Alcohol abuse is a huge problem. When you think what an original, capable person Jarl is / was. You wonder what it is about drinking that he finds so compelling he would throw away so much to pursue.

I hope he gets the help he needs (but he also needs to sign up & work for it, too, of course).
Thanks for the comment, anon.

Bouncin' Barb said...

Now that is a man who when sober I would love to sit and pick his brain. I bet he's led a very interesting life and has lots of stories to tell. The ones he can remember anyways. So sad!

Spence said...

Definitely! That's one hell of a walk he did!

Alcoholism is such a curse.