Bob had been planning his escape for several days. He was gagging for a drink, and had to have one. He’d tried all his usual ploys: wheedling with staff, offering other patients’ visitors money if they would bring him a few tins in next time they came, and begging people who were being discharged to pop back and see him with a ‘little bottle of something’. All to no avail. He’d been in here for a fortnight now, and was getting desperate. The craving for that heady buzz of euphoria, followed by a blurring of reality where everyone was your friend and you were the cleverest, funniest guy around and finally the bliss of oblivion was becoming overwhelming.
The community nurses had been treating his leg ulcers three times a week for several months. The agreement was that he would limp into the local doctors’ surgery every other day, except for weekends, and they would change his dressings and do whatever they could to treat the gaping, oozing wounds on his legs. When a week passed without him appearing at the surgery, they raised concerns with the local police, who eventually found him semi-comatose on a park bench with a half empty plastic bottle of cider hugged possessively to his chest. The police transported him to A&E and lurked in the background whilst a severe young doctor, her hair wrenched back into an untidy ponytail, black rimmed glasses balanced on the end of her nose, and stethoscope slung around her neck, said.
‘Mr Blake, if you refuse to be admitted for treatment, I’ll call the head psych to assess you for mental capacity. It’s likely that you will be detained under the Mental Health Act, and so will have to stay. It’s your choice.’ It didn’t seem like much choice to Bob, either stay voluntarily or be forcibly admitted. He reluctantly agreed. Once on the ward, they removed his clothes, some needing to be cut off, the layers having become melded together by months of encrusted grime. They washed him, despite him taking ineffective swipes at the young nurses, their features disguised by plastic aprons, rubber gloves and surgical masks, as they did so. One of them must have sneaked out and complained, because after a few repeats of him lashing out at them, and then shrieks as they leapt away beyond his reach, the curtain shielding him from public view was pulled aside. A diminutive man of Asian origin, dressed in a light blue nurse’s tunic and navy trousers, as opposed to the nurses’, who were administering to him, blue stripped tunics, stepped into the relative privacy of Bob’s screened area. He was obviously someone with a degree of authority.
‘Bob, aggression towards staff is not tolerated. Do you understand?’ He admonished, continuing. ‘If you persist with this behaviour and refusal of personal care, I will call for assistance, and it is likely that it will be deemed that your needs are more of a mental health nature than physical.’ Bob meekly nodded. He had only understood half of the man’s heavily accented speech, but then he was only just beginning to sober up. Even so, he recognised the now twice repeated theme of ‘mental health’. Did they all think that he was some sort of nutter? He needed a drink that was all!
It wasn’t all bad. Other patients complained about the lack of sleep, but Bob rarely slept in a bed. Occasionally, he would be lucky enough to obtain a room in the night shelter, but more often than not he would be refused entry due to his inebriated state. For a man used to sleeping covered in cardboard in shop doorways, or slumped in a bus shelter, the noise of others’ snores, groans of pain, nurses’ hushed conversations and the squeaking of bed or wheelchair wheels as patients were moved was trivial. He enjoyed the luxury of regular meals, wolfing down the hospital food with relish. Whilst others around him groused that it was inedible slop, to him it represented a veritable banquet. And for the most part, he liked the company and feeling of security. Outside, he sometimes found drinking buddies, but more often than not he was invisible to the majority as they hurried by, deliberately avoiding glancing in his direction. To a small minority he was an object of ridicule and torment. Here, for the most part, the nurses treated him with respect, and the other patients sometimes included him in their conversations and jokes.
He decided to leave during visiting time. If he went when the doctors were doing their rounds he would be missed, the same when the nurses were doing their routine checks, but if he left after lunch, when there were more comings and goings in the ward, and the nurses’ station was often surrounded by relatives enquiring about loved ones, he had more chance of getting out. He packed his few belongings, – his Post Office account bank card, birth certificate, and a birthday card, tattered and worn by age, which he had received years ago from his mother, in a Tesco carrier bag. He hung the plastic bag over the handles of his three wheeled walker. The rollator had been supplied to aid his mobility by the medical staff, in order to mitigate against the risk of him falling, whilst maintaining his ability to walk. As far as he knew, his clothes had been binned. There was no alternative for him, than to stay in his hospital gown and pyjama bottoms. His shoes had met a similar fate, but he was confident that the open toed surgical shoes, which he now wore would offer adequate protection to his swollen, flaking feet.
Moving nonchalantly towards the swinging double doors at the end of the ward, he nodded to one of the nurses as she walked past him. An incoming visitor innocently held one of the heavy doors open for Bob as he departed. Keeping his pace steady, as though he was perhaps heading down to the volunteer shop to buy himself a packet of sweets, he made for the lift. he pressed the down arrow, which glowed red in response. If caught at this point, he could still say that he was on his way to purchase some polos. With a clunk the lift stopped at the second floor, the heavy metal doors slid open. Bob moved aside as a a young couple holding hands and a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck exited, and then he moved into the elevator. Quickly he pressed the ‘close doors’ buttons followed by the ‘G’ for ground floor. With a shudder and mechanical whir, the lift descended. After thirty seconds. it juddered to a halt, the doors automatically opened and Bob was at the main entrance. The staff contained behind the semi circle of the main reception desk were too busy to notice him, as he wheeled towards the vast revolving doors, and then he was out! Into the cool, damp air. It felt cold to Bob after being cloistered in the suffocating warmth of the ward for two weeks. He took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh smell, so different from the mixed hospital smells of surgical spirit, antiseptic sprays, cleaning fluid and dinners. No time to waste, he must keep moving. Across the car park he trundled. He was making for the railway station, realising that if he remained in Penzance he would soon be picked up and returned to the hospital. It didn’t matter what train he caught, as long as when he got off he could buy some clothes and alcohol. The station was just over half a mile away. A walk of this distance posed no problem to a man who regularly spent his days wandering around shopping centres, searching for an obtrusive spot where he could enjoy a quiet drink and not be moved on.
Out of the hospital grounds he trundled onto Clare Street. There were only a few people about. The ground felt rough underneath his feet, and as the rollator travelled over the pavement every lump and bump jolted through his body. Passing a row of closely packed grey-stone terraced houses, on past a small convenience store and the Post Office, then the Fountain Tavern – oh, how he was tempted! But he knew that he was too near the hospital to risk it, and too conspicuous in his gown and pyjamas. Into Taroever Road, it was downhill now, so easier going into Mount Street. Determinedly not making eye contact with several passers by, he pushed himself to continue. He could see the train terminus at the bottom of the hill. Not far now, but his poor feet were burning, the weeping wounds beneath his bandaged legs were an agony and he was tired. He had forgotten how bad his lower limbs felt without the anaesthetising effect of either alcohol, or the hospital administered pain medication. And he was weary, he wondered how it was possible that fourteen days of enforced inactivity could have weakened him so.
Finally, he reached the ticket office. Labouring through the bright red painted door, past the ticket kiosk, he looked up at the departure board. The next train due to depart was from platform one, headed for London, Paddington. That would do. In truth, he was in so much pain anything with a seat would do. He lumbered up to the nearest carriage pushed the door open button and almost fell into an available seat. It was a single one with a small table in front and a space for his walker. He glanced down at his feet. The exposed toes were cold, but one big toe, due to its ingrowing nail, was a throbbing area of torture. The hospital had said that it would need attention from a chiropodist, his nails being too long, deformed and thickened for the ward’s health care assistants to cut them. In dismay, he realised that areas of his pyjama bottoms were stained yellow. The discharge from his ulcers must have seeped through the dressings. Exhausted he slumped back into his seat, but remained vigilant whenever the carriage doors slid open. He was watching in case the police or anyone boarded the train in search of him. He doubted if there was much he could do if they did, he was in no fit state to make a run for it. He noticed several people stand in the doorway, hesitate, glance in his direction and then turnabout and leave. With a deep sense of shame and humiliation, he realised that the combination of the noxious odour from his leg wounds, his unconventional dress, uncombed, dirty, straggly hair, and unshaven, grey bristled face was the cause of their change of mind.
Ten minutes passed, and then with relief, he heard the announcement that the 15.10
train at platform one was about to depart, followed by a shrill whistle and the beep, beep, beep as the doors closed and the train began to move. Overhead, red illuminated station names progressed across a display, as a woman’s voice announced ‘This is the 15.10 bound for London, Paddington. We will be stopping at: St Erth, Hayle, Camborne….The next stop will be St Erth.’ Bob began to relax, and as the train settled into its regular clickety-clack rhythm his eyes shut and his head drooped over the seat’s table. He was vaguely aware of the train stopping at St Erth and then pulling out again. He knew nothing more until he felt someone gently shaking him by the shoulder. Dazed and confused, he sat up and suddenly remembered that he was on a train. He looked up, into the face of a man, older than him, with eyes as dark as blackberries and neatly cropped hair. He wore a navy waistcoat with GWR embroidered in gold on the chest, the buttons of which, were being severely challenged with the effort of remaining done up over his enormous dome like stomach.
‘Sorry, to wake you Sir, but where are you heading?’
‘London. I haven’t got a ticket, but I can pay. I’ve got a bank card.’
‘Let’s not worry about that for now. I’ll let you nod off again, whilst I go and make some enquiries.’ Bob heard this latter statement with some trepidation. He considered making his way to the toilet and locking himself in, but concluded that it wasn’t feasible as a long term solution. Realising that there was little else he could do, he allowed himself to again drift off to sleep.
Martin, the train manager, made his way down the train, expertly swaying in synchronization with the carriage’s movements. Once in the privacy of the cramped cubby hole, which was extravagantly referred to as ‘his office.’, he telephoned central control room in Swindon.
‘Hello Alina. It’s Martin here, on the 15.10 from Penzance to Paddington.’ He could hear her smile in her voice, as she answered in her Slovian English.
‘Hello my friend. I have not spoken to you in a long time. How are you?’
‘I’m fine thank you, but think we may have a problem. I’ve got a man on board, wearing a hospital gown, no ticket and he smells dreadful, like he’s really ill.’
‘You think he may have run away from somewhere?’
‘Where did he get on?’
‘Not sure, but we’re only just past St Austell now.’
‘Ok, leave it to me. I will make some enquiries and call you back.’
‘Ok thank you.’ With that Martin recommenced his duties, walking up and down the train, making announcements regarding punctuality, offering assistance to disabled people as they embarked and disembarked, ensuring that onboard cleanliness was maintained, and no-one was acting anti-socially. He’d seen it all in his time: a young couple at it when they thought they had the carriage to themselves, a goat sitting on a seat beside its owner. He had told her that, like dogs, it must remain on the floor. A woman giving birth, you name it, he’d dealt with it. After a few short minutes, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. Taking it out and answering, the display told him that it was central control ringing him back.
‘Hello Alina, give me a mo. I’m just heading to somewhere more private.’ He swiftly traversed the carriages, until he was back in his office.
‘Ok I can talk now.’
‘It didn’t take long. We think he’s a Mr Robert Blake. West Cornwall hospital lost a patient of that name earlier this afternoon.’
‘Is he dangerous?’
‘No, the hospital says that he’s fine as long as no-one interferes with him.’
‘So what’re we going to do?’
‘We’re arranging for him to be collected at Reading.’
Martin again made his way along the train to carriage A, where Bob was peacefully slumbering. It seemed a shame to wake him, but the train manager thought he should.
Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, he softly shook him awake.
‘Sorry, to wake you again Sir, but are you Robert Blake?’ There was a brief pause, whilst Bob thought about lying. In the end, he decided that there was nothing to be gained by denying the truth, so he nodded.
‘We’ve arranged for you to get off at Reading. Will you need any help?’
‘No, just wake me up.’ Bob reasoned that once he was off the train, he could return to his original quest for clothes and a drink, not necessarily in that order. It was irrelevant what the town was called to him, as long as it had off-licences and charity shops. For now, he just needed to rest and recover his strength. The train continued its rhythmic progress, Totnes, Newton Abbot, Exeter St Davids,Taunton until it reached Reading. Bob had been lulled into a deep slumber, and so didn’t stir when the train stopped, or notice the two policemen board the train and stand in front of him.
‘Mr Blake. Time to wake up.’ Bob roused and gazed blearily around him.
‘Are you alright, Sir?’ Bob nodded, and without saying more they disembarked, whilst Martin busied himself setting up the portable ramp, which enabled wheelchairs to move from the carriages on to the platform. Next a rather elegant, suited gentleman boarded and approached Bob. With an air of forced bonhomie he asked.
‘Hello Sir. Think we’d better get you into hospital don’t you?’
‘Yes.’ Agreed Bob, although he was thinking that, at the first opportunity he’d be off again. The suave gentleman disappeared, to reappear seconds later with a wheelchair. Needing no instruction, Bob stood and transferred himself from train seat to the wheelchair seat. As he did so he faced his few fellow travellers and said.
‘Sorry everybody.’ He locked eyes with one woman, and the look of sympathy which he saw on her face was worse than the embarrassment he had felt, when he realised that, people were leaving the carriage because of the smell emanating from him. Plonking himself into the wheelchair, he was manoeuvred out of the carriage. Fearful of being tipped as he descended the ramp, he held on tightly to the chair’s arms The policemen were waiting on the platform and followed at a respectful distance, as he was wheeled towards the station’s elevator. Up they went to road level, where a patrol car was ostentatiously parked outside the entrance, on the double yellow lines.
‘Just a minute, Sir, we’ll open the doors for you.’ It was pouring with rain, pedestrians rushing by with umbrellas on the pavement, cars swishing past, their tyres throwing up spray as they passed. Reading looked grey and uninviting. Bob stood in readiness for getting into the car. His gown and pyjamas were soaked, clinging wetly to his body. He was cold, tired, defeated and in pain. Suddenly, the prospect of a warm hospital bed, some food and painkillers became more inviting.