Mitch has a Borgnine smile, a stretch of small teeth like someone just unzippered the bottom half of his face. It’s a utilitarian thing, a first line of defence, the kind of smile you might use no matter what. I can imagine him in the garage, wiping his hands on an oily rag, smiling in that way as a customer describes the dink dink noise from the engine, or smiling in the cluttered office as the accountant bawls him out about the state of his books, or in the pub, lowering his pint to watch his apprentice play pool. It’s an unsettling smile, a volatile mix of affable and aggressive, like he’s holding you there whilst he makes up his mind.
‘I didn’t get no reply when I rang, so I thought I’d come by and see,’ he says, smiling. He looks down at the bed, at his wife sprawled there, surrounded by empty blister packs. ‘You can’t keep doing this, Shirl,’ he says. ‘You really can’t.’
Shirl says she doesn’t want to go to hospital, but the pills have made her so drowsy it’s easy enough to coax her up, into boots and down the stairs.
Outside the rain has stopped and the sky is a beaten blue. Shirl’s hair whips around her face. She plucks at it ineffectually.
‘Three steps up. There you go.’
She lies back on the ambulance trolley and seems to fall straight asleep. She’s rousable though, enough to take sips from a bottle of activated charcoal. Her lips get stained with a pouty little circle of black, like a geisha.
‘Urgh,’ she says. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘Well you shouldn’t have taken all them pills then,’ smiles Mitch from the opposite chair. Then he plants his elbows squarely on his knees, leans forwards, and and massages his face with his big, calloused hands.
‘I don’t know,’ he says, sighing, straightening up again and looking at me. ‘I’ve had enough, mate. The mental health lot are worse than useless. You get some geezer from the crisis team come round, and all they do is bosh out more Valium. And the psychiatrist ‘aint much better. She just sits there sucking her glasses and scribbling notes. Hm. I see. And what about this and that? And then writes a prescription for more pills. I’ve had it up to here, mate.’
He smiles at me, and the distance between that smile and the resonant black of his eyes could not be more profound.