I check my watch.
It’s been a long, hot shift on the car. If I’m to get off with even a half an hour overrun, there can be no delays.
Patient suicidal the notes from Control had said. Making plans to hang himself. Not violent.
It sounds pretty violent. Ordinarily, with more time to spare, I’d probably stand off to hear a little more about it, but frankly I’m so keyed up there’s no situation I wouldn’t stride into and take my chance.
I knock again, then push the door and walk in.
Despite the intense brightness of the early evening, the interior is dull, curtained-off, close.
Bookshelves filled with books. Smart paintings on the wall, a free-standing TV and a worn leather sofa. Otherwise the place is empty, with an edgy, ransacked feel.
Jack is sitting on the sofa trying to roll a cigarette, strands of tobacco splaying out either end of the carpet-sized makings and spilling over his jeans.
‘Oh, hi, hi,’ he says, rolling to one side as he turns to look. ‘Don’t mind me. I’ll just smoke this then I’ll kill myself.’
He puts it in his mouth and then starts patting his waistcoat for a match. In his heavy metal t-shirt, goatee beard, wild grey hair and woven leather wrist bands, he looks like a middle-aged roadie backstage, too wrecked to finish setting up.
‘It’s the voices,’ he says, taking the cigarette out of his mouth, frowning at it, then throwing it on the floor. ‘I can’t take them anymore. You’re useless. You’re a failure. Kill yourself and get it over with. And they’re right. Look at this. Come on. Here…’
He pokes around in a pile of letters at his feet on the floor.
‘It’s here somewhere. Thousands of pounds. Thousands! And I haven’t got it. I just haven’t got it. You can’t hand over what you haven’t got. I haven’t worked since my accident, I lost my job, my family, everything, and now they’re taking me to court for thousands of pounds. It might as well be millions. What do you have to say about that? Hmm?’
He reaches down to his feet and produces a glass of whiskey, sipping it shakily.
‘It sounds horribly stressful,’ I say. ‘You’ve got a lot on your plate. Anyone would get depressed.’
He puts the glass back down with an exaggerated level of care.
‘Anyone who was useless,’ he says. ‘I might as well kill myself and get it over with.’
‘It seems to me maybe your problems fall into two camps,’ I say. ‘Financial worries, and then mental health, although they both affect each other. I think you could do with some debt counselling advice, along with seeing a doctor about these voices you’re hearing, and your mental health generally.’
He shrugs, then starts to dry cry, pulling at his hair and rocking backwards and forwards.
‘You’re useless. A failure. That’s what they say to me, over and over. I’ve had enough of it.’
‘You’ve had a lot a deal with, Jack,’ I say. ‘But I think you need to take it one step at a time. I think you should get your mobile phone, your keys and a jacket, and I’ll drive you up the hospital so you can have a chat with a doctor about how you feel. What do you say?’
‘You’re the boss,’ he says. ‘I haven’t got a mobile though. That went with everything else. I used to have all this stuff. I used to paint, you know. I used to play guitar. But first there was the accident, and now I’ve got carpal tunnel. Nothing works. I’m a useless fuck-up and I may as well be dead. The only question is, whether to hang myself or throw myself under a train. But I don’t want to cause any bother to anyone. I don’t want to make a mess.’
‘Come on, Jack’ I say, holding out his jacket. ‘Let’s go down the hospital.’
I put him in the front passenger seat where I think he’ll be less of a danger. Now and again he leans too far over and gets in my way, so I have to keep pushing him back upright. Still, I’m covering ground, making time.
‘Look at all this shit,’ he says, flapping his hand as we drive along the high street. ‘Buy this, buy that. Crap you don’t need. It’s all shit. I tried to get into alternative lifestyles. I read a lot, made a study of it. Do you know the difference between Buddhism and Taoism?’
His eyes half-close with the effort of saying those two phrases, which tumble out of him in a rush of whiskey vapour.
‘Well – someone explained it to me like this. Say you lived on plain rice. For a month. Then went to Macdonalds. The food would taste out of this world. You’d be aware of every little herb and grain of salt. It would be so fantastic, so utterly amazing, you’d be blown away.’
‘What about Buddhism?’
‘They don’t eat meat. But I suppose they could have a vegeburger.’
He laughs, and leans back far enough to free a hand and slap me on the shoulder. Then his mood draws down again and he looks anguished.
‘I just can’t – live – like this. I don’t fit in. I don’t belong. So when the voices tell me I’m useless and a failure, I have to think they’re right, you know? They’re right. And I should do something about it.’
‘Have a chat to the experts at the hospital, Jack. They’ll be able to help.’
‘Absolutely. One thing to bear in mind, though. You’ve had quite a bit to drink, so they’ll have to wait till you’ve sobered up before they can do a full assessment. Only because they have to be sure it’s not the drink affecting your mood.’
‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘Hey – I’ve read a bit about psychiatry. Have you ever heard of R D Laing?’
‘Vaguely. Wasn’t he big in the sixties?’
‘He said there's no such thing as mental illness. He said people express themselves in different ways, and society can't cope with that. It's easier to label them a psycho than deal with what they have to say. It's political.’
‘What do you think?’
‘Me? I just don’t know what I’m going to tell them in court. I mean – you can ask for thousands of pounds till you’re blue in the face, but if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.’
In the triage cubicle at the hospital, Jack lies back on a trolley with both hands behind his head, smiling at the nurse.
‘So what’s brought you in to hospital today?’ she says, wrapping a BP cuff round his arm.
‘A philosophical question,’ he says.
Twelve-hours flat, like me.
‘Well – it’s a bit more than that,’ I say, stepping forward with the clipboard. ‘Jack has been under a lot of stress lately. He’s been hearing voices and planning to kill himself.’
‘Is that right, Jack?’ says the nurse, looking at the monitor and writing down the obs. ‘Have you been planning to kill yourself?’
‘That’s what I mean – a philosophical question. I don’t know whether to hang myself in the loft or throw myself under a train.’