James is being transferred from the CDU to a secure bed at a psychiatric hospital, with a diagnosis of hypermania. The nurse looks red in the face, relieved that we’ve arrived early to take him. He gives a discreet nod of his head to indicate the bed James is in, then tells us he’ll get all the notes and the transfer papers together.
‘You shouldn’t have any trouble,’ he says, then adds, ‘Nothing physical, anyway,’ and smiles thinly as he ducks back to his desk to sort out the paperwork.
James is sitting on his bed, a fifty-year-old man with a forty-year-old pony tail. It hangs down the centre of his back, a grey and greasy length of rope tied at the ends with string. Over his black t-shirt he wears a grey waistcoat; round his neck he wears a cloth pouch on a long leather thong – it swings forwards when he leans over to tie up his boot laces.
When I step over to say hello he looks up, and begins speaking:
‘So you’ve come to take me to the loony bin have you? Well – I say loony bin. Bit disrespectful but you know what I mean. Where’s your syringe and your net? Hey? I was expecting someone in a big white coat, you know. Bit of a cliché, I know. A tranquiliser dart in the bum and a ride in a wooden box. But that’s not how it’s done, I’m kidding. I know that’s not how it’s done. I don’t doubt you’re very professional. So I’m going to the psychiatric hospital because I’ve been a bit stressed lately – well, I say stressed. I can get a bit manic sometimes and things have been building up lately. But I’ve got my beads to keep me on the straight and narrow. They’re like Catholic prayer beads, but without all the crap that goes with that particular faith – although I shouldn’t really say that. I don’t know enough about this stuff. But yeah, as I say, I have my prayer beads made of sacred wood cured over sacred fires, you know, and I wear them round my neck all the time so I can take them out whenever I need to, whenever I have to pray to get myself back into line. So look, I fiddle them round like this and for each one I make a prayer. Hanuman for courage, Shakti for balance, Vishnu for mercy and so on. Matangi for creativity. I don’t know all of them. I’ve never been there, you know. I wouldn’t mind going. I’d love to learn about their culture. Not like this one. What culture? Hey? That’s what I’d like to know....’
He talks in a whiskery patter of words, without apparently drawing breath. There is a glassy sheen of saliva on his goateed chin that he dabs at from time to time with the back of his hand, but the flow of words is uninterrupted. And the monologue floods out of him without any real effort, a generator of words. His long face remains slack as a camel, but now and again he rolls his dark eyes to the side, the absolute minimum he need do to check his audience is still conscious.
We walk with him out to the ambulance, and he carries on talking regardless.
‘... I ditched my copy of Men Only the other day when I got this (he hands me a copy of an Islamic guide to women) I think that explains all the basics. It’s very interesting. I was always the one walking into the lamppost when a pretty woman caught my eye in the street, but not any more, not after reading that. I know they put stuff in the bible, the Koran and what have you, man does, not God, their God, whatever. Stuff that wasn’t there before. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but they eat meat, don’t they? I went to Sunday school, me and my brother. Well we bunked off more than we were there but it was a start. I know I’m not educated, I don’t know nearly enough to speak on the subject. I’ll leave that to the experts. But I don’t mean politicians. I certainly wouldn’t leave anything to the politicians. I won’t vote again. It’s like Russell Brand says. Don’t encourage them. Not that I’m a fan. He goes on a bit, but very bright. He went to Oxford and ran rings around them. Couldn’t talk for laughing. But you definitely can’t trust politicians. Back-stabbing bastards. Looking out for themselves, big business. They’re no good. I remember when I was in the Gambia. There was this young girl riding on the back of a cart. Giving birth, actually. On the back of a cart, going through the streets, dust, flies, you name it. And the baby was the wrong way round or something. You’d know. Not my thing. Anyway, she couldn’t get it out for whatever reason, and they were taking her to hospital. Terrible really, but I suppose they’re used to it. I wasn’t used to it. I was at the front on a big white cushion and my arse had gone to sleep....’
Every now and again James punctuates his monologue with a grimace, a pained drawing back of his lips, exposing a crooked set of yellow teeth. The skin of his arms is angry with a rash that he scratches from time to time, idly raking over it with his nails.
‘... I remember this African boy. Only about twelve or so. I got him into trouble, kind of. He was cycling fifteen miles a day to work in this white guy’s fancy house. Fifteen miles there, fifteen miles back, all for twenty pounds a week. I said he’s taking advantage, but what can you do? The thing is this obsession with money and wealth. This crazy running-after stuff. It’ll only get you so far and then what do you do? For the great prophets have said, you can’t go to heaven with your pockets full of gold. You’ll die with a grimace – all that worry about money, it won’t do you a bit of good. You come into the world as you went out, and comeback maybe worse. I was on the streets for a long time. I slept out in the cold. You keep yourself to yourself. You don’t want to be noticed. I think they should force the politicians to do it. Every politician should have to sleep out, for two weeks every year. Maybe more, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I haven’t had the education. Anyway, do you like my shoes? I got them from the church. You should see it. These big black, beautiful women there, waiting for you, in the doorway of this church. And when you walk up to it, do you know what they do? They throw their arms wide – like this – and they draw you right into them, right in to their lovely squashy tits, and give you the biggest hug in the world. Just like that. Don’t know you from the next man, don’t care. Dressed in these big, colourful clothes, they hug you right there in the doorway for all the world to see. And then they give you carrier bags of clothes – all good stuff. Sandwiches, shoes. What do you think would happen here if you went into a pub and a woman gave you a hug like that? Her husband would come over and tell you to fuck off, or worse. Kick you in the ribs. But it’s not like that there, it’s not their culture. And what’s our culture? I’ll tell you. I lived on the streets and I know the places where things happen. There’s this cafe, right? You wouldn’t want to go there. Where all the Romanies hang out. Well – I say Romanies, not the proper Romanies. Nothing wrong with them – not all of them, anyway. But this cafe, there are people there who the police hire to take out anyone they don’t want around anymore. The drug dealers, paeds, you name it. They go to this cafe, and they hire who they want. They threatened me with diazepam once, but I won’t have nothing to do with it. I know I get a bit – you know – chatty at times, but I’m not violent, never have been. I’ve got my beads. I’ve got the things I need to do and that’s all there is to it. Well – I say that’s all there is to it. But what do I know? I leave stuff like that to people who do. What? Are we there?’
I open the door and we step out into the hospital car park. James is quiet for a moment, looking around, almost steaming in the cool light of the afternoon. He shakes his head and his pony tails swings out to the side. Then he touches the pouch of beads around his neck, and carries on talking.