Sunday, November 04, 2012


As we turn into the road, three children and a dog have been standing look-out. They catch sight of us and run ahead along the pavement, the terrier barking furiously, pushing itself forwards on the lead with such force it’s like they’re holding a rabid dog at the end of a pole. Groups of people stop to stare as we pass. Windows open, people lean out,  all with the same expression. In fact, everyone’s so interested it makes us nervous. Maybe they don’t like visitors. Maybe they’ll kill us, stuff us, and hang us on the end of terrace display along with the other trophies: the milkman, the postman, the Jehovah’s Witness.
Two men in shiny black puffa jackets smoke and stand guard by the gate of the house we want; a large woman with an unfeasibly contoured figure waves and carefully lowers herself down a step.  A couple of seagulls land on the roof – it’s like the whole world has been alerted.
The two men stand aside; one of them holds the gate open for us and grunts as we pass.
Half-way up the steps, the woman gasps: ‘It’s John. It’s John’s heart.’
The little front garden is crapped-up with rubbish, heaped up around the threshold like the house spat out any junk it couldn’t eat through the battered front door.
‘John? John? It’s the ambulance, John.’
There are shouts and screams like there’s a fight going on upstairs. But the woman doesn’t seem to pay it any mind, so we don’t ask.
John is sitting on the sofa, his hands spread on his knees in a position of studied calm only undercut by his rapid breathing and a flush of panic on his face.
‘Anxiety,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’
Suddenly a teenage boy as large as the woman stomps into the sitting room; John looks up and tries to smile reassuringly  but it doesn’t work.
‘What the fuck...?’ says the boy. He seems angry. He rolls his eyes about the room like a wounded lion looking for something to bite. His paws are bunched into fists.
‘It’s okay, Josh,’ says John. ‘They’re paramedics. Mum was worried ... about my heart.’
‘Yeah?’ he says, ‘Yeah?’ - and stands over us for a second, breathing hard. But he thinks better of it and suddenly turns and crashes back out of the room.
‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’
It’s like tag-interruption. The boy goes out and a woman comes in, one hand over her mouth and the other reaching out to touch John on the side of the face. ‘What is it, John? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing, Jean, nothing. I just had some bad news, that’s all. I’ll be all right.’
‘Are you sure, doll? Are you sure?’
‘Perfectly sure.’
She turns to us.
‘You take good care of him,’ she says. ‘He’s very precious to us. Check his heart, and everything. Okay? I don’t want him to die on us.’ She turns back to John. ‘Don’t you dare. Will you? You promise? You won’t die on us? Please, god.’
John smiles but looks tearful.
‘Could you just wait outside for a bit?’ I ask the woman. ‘Sorry. Only we just need a little space – and quiet – so we can get the whole picture. Is that all right?’
The woman sighs and fishes a cigarette out of her pocket.
‘I’ll make some tea,’ she says, the fag bobbing up and down in her mouth. ‘Shall I make some tea, pet?’
John nods.
‘I’ll make it just how you like it.’
She goes out and starts crashing around in the kitchen, swearing.
We sit down either side of John on the sofa.
‘There. That’s better. Now. How are you feeling, John?’
‘Better. I’m better, thanks. It was definitely anxiety. I’ve had the attacks before. I know what to look for, all the signs. It’s just – I had some bad news – very bad news. I think what with that and everything else it just took me by surprise.’
Suddenly the sitting room door bursts open again and another guy rushes in.
‘What’s wrong, John? They said you was having a heart attack. Are you all right? I saw the ambulance and I thought fuck – he must be dying. Are you okay?’
John holds his hand up to stop him.
‘I’m okay, mate, yeah – thanks. Don’t worry. Let me just talk to these guys and I’ll tell you all about it.’
But this last interruption has breached the dam wall. Everybody pours in - the two guys from the garden, John’s wife, the kids with the terrier, and finally the woman from the kitchen, who starts shouting for everyone to be quiet and spills half the cup in John’s lap.
John leans past me to get a cloth.
‘I think you’ll be the one needing a paper bag in a minute,’ he says.


Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

Incredible what passes for normal in others' lives. You have seen sights that will never leave you and have forgotten more than most will ever see or be exposed to in their life. For that I thank you.

Hannah said...

I grew up in a commission housing estate. It's funny how at that end of town there's sometimes more evidence of community than anywhere else.

Invictus said...

As an introvert, my first response is, 'Wow. That would be SO annoying! No wonder he has anxiety problems!" The thought that washes right over the top of that one, though, is, "Good grief, look at how many people CARE about that man!"

I wonder what his daily life consists of... I mean, is he one of those people that are constantly doing little things for other people? Is that it? It just makes me wonder.

jacksofbuxton said...

I'm not surprised John's anxious.

Wonder if his doctor would give John a week away on his own on prescription?

Elaine Denning said...

That would seriously be my worst nightmare if I was in his position.

Spence Kennedy said...

Lynda - The high drama jobs you remember easily, but there are hundreds of others that have interesting aspects I'd probably forget if I didn't keep a journal of some kind. That's one reason I think the blog is so useful. The other is that I get to share all these things with other people. It spreads the load!

Hannah - That's a good point. For all the noise and drama of this job, it was certainly true that John had a fair few people looking out for him.

Invictus - It wasn't an easy setting for a panic attack, but it was obvious John was used to living surrounded by high levels of noise and fuss, so I think he was coping better than us. The attack itself was triggered by the bad news he'd had (never found out what that was).

Jacks - It'd be great if doctors could write scrips like that. 'A fortnight in the sun, prn.' Mmm.

Elaine - Mine too (despite the fact I come from a very big family!)


Thanks very much for all your comments.

Becca said...

It's a bugger when it's not the panic attack itself that's the real problem (sounds like John is more than able to handle them) but other people's reactions to it - melodrama, dialling 999 and the rest. Makes me wonder if there'd be much good in a bit of an education program specifically for family and friends of people who suffer things like panic attacks, where they need some support but absolutely not an ambulance.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Becca.
It's true - the scene's often the most difficult thing to control. I like the idea of an education programme - especially one that started early. Maybe we could teach first aid / basic life support from Primary school onward, and at Secondary add other things like drug & alcohol awareness, along with the common things that happen to people (incl. panic attacks). Funding's an issue, of course. But it would definitely help.