This story contains themes of mental health and reference to sexual abuse.
”Don’t forget your pills.”
Alan slurps his tea to cool it. Some dribbles down his chin, adding to the damp patch on his chest. His mouth contorts with involuntary lip-smacking and grimacing caused by years of heavy medication.
“Your pills,” repeats Agnes, nodding to the small paper cup on the table. She stands next to him, arms crossed over her stout body as she waits, sternly overseeing this regular ritual. Her eyes swim like fishes in the lenses of her glasses, cold and wet. Alan’s face twists again, this time with displeasure, but he tips the assortment of pills onto the creases of his palm. One for his head, one for the head pill side effects, and one for the acid gurgling in his throat. He washes them down with the dregs of his tea and sweeps the empty paper cup across the table in Agnes’s direction.
“Why don’t you tidy yourself up, Alan? You’ve got breakfast all down your front.”
Alan looks down and brushes away the spilt cereal clinging to his T-shirt. Flakes scatter across the heavy duty vinyl floor. Pushing back his chair so the legs screech, he takes agitated strides out of the communal kitchen.
The staff tell Alan he’s living his best life now, resettled from hospital into a new group home. He’s even got his own bedroom with a sink. There’s a smell of urine in his room, because at sixty years old he still wets the bed, but the automatic puffs of air freshener smell of flowers. His mattress has a plastic cover that crinkles when he turns over at night, and the staff help him change the sheets every day.
Alan’s past is washed out like the bed linen. Barely any memories are left of his mother who suffered from nerves, and he doesn’t like to think about his dirty, wicked father who touched him where he shouldn’t. He loved his older brother though- a ginger lad- hair as bright as copper pennies. Sometimes images flash by of riding high up on his brother’s shoulders, shrieks of laughter, king of the castle, Alan! Then inevitably, images follow of the dark blue policeman’s uniform after the accident- both brother and car mangled from driving too fast.
Standing on the doorstep for a smoke, fingertips stained marigold yellow and nails the colour of stewed tea, Alan rolls and re-rolls the wad of tobacco in the rustling paper until it’s just right to seal with a wet lick. Kelly arrives for the start of her shift, boots click-clacking on the driveway, her dark hair in soft and glossy waves on her shoulders. He gazes, delighted to see her, grins widely.
“Hello Kelly. I like your hair.”
“Hey Alan, I like yours, too. Are you going to move out of the way, though?”
Alan shuffles to the side, eyes brimming with adoration. “Want to go to the café today, Kelly?”
“Maybe later, pet, if there’s time.” Kelly walks through to the staffroom as handover will start soon. Alan catches a glimpse of the shelves of notes the staff write in before the door swings shut and he is left alone.
In the pocket of his elastic waisted trousers Alan feels the reassuring weight of his keys and purse. Patting them gently, he ambles down the street, the rhythm of his stride faltering with the rigid jolts his awkward body can’t help making.
He stops at the newsagents to buy a half ounce of tobacco, takes out his purse and pours the loose change onto the counter. With great care he looks at each coin, searching for the silver ones first, moving them with his index finger. The man behind the till makes an impatient tutting noise. Alan, aware of disapproval, rocks from foot to foot. His lips twist and purse, pulling his face into a sour expression, and he can’t get any words out.
“Good lad, that’ll be enough.” The man rakes up all the coins, gold rings glinting on greedy hands, cash desk drawer closing with a ping.
Alan’s annoyed there are no coins left in his purse, he’s worried he’s been tricked, but he can’t count them properly by himself. Too simple, they’d told his family years ago. Too thick to go to school. Much better to be taken to a special place for boys like him. A hospital- but just like home, they said, just like family.
The hospital wards had pretty names like Bluebell and Primrose. His days were overseen by bony fingered nurses who pinched him when he made a mess, kind ones who let him sit at the nurses’ station, and sometimes ones who offered cigarettes for doing the things his father did. The boredom yawned endlessly between meals, between smokes, between the workshop sessions in which he sanded wood and swept floors, and he grew from boy to youth to grey haired man.
Tobacco pouch in pocket, Alan heads towards the railway line. He disturbs a flock of pigeons pecking crumbs from the pavement and they scatter upwards, a vortex of dirty confetti. It’s a celebration of sorts for this other life; a new start after the wards were closed and the drafty old buildings were sold off for conversion into luxury flats with prestigious Victorian facades. Your chance to live in the community, Alan, to make everyday choices, to have a home of your own.
The staff help him cook dinner, and they take him shopping to buy clothes- easy to pull on casual tops and soft roomy trousers that he can manage when his bladder is full. Four other men from the wards are sharing the new house, none of them friends, but he can go to his room when they try to do him over for money, you filthy bastard, you low-grade.
“He needs to stand up for himself,” he heard Agnes say about him once, when he was waiting outside the staffroom for spare change from his tin. “After all, families have pecking orders too.”
Alan arrives at the wooden hoarding that marks out the base of the railway footbridge. It’s a weathered barrier, a collage of bright spray-painted tags and the tattered ribbons of advertisement posters. He stops, furtively checks for anyone close by, and when he’s confident there’s no one about to notice, he pulls aside a warped panel swinging loose. Stepping through, he stands in a concealed section of wasteland, a small forgotten triangle of space along the edge of the railway track, secluded from view.
Fly-tipped waste nestles amongst the nettles and ox-eye daisies; builder’s bags of rubble, the corroded frame of a long lost bike, and a discarded mattress blotched with watermarks. Aggregate crunches under Alan’s feet as he makes his way over to the mattress where he sits down to roll another smoke. A fast train from Paddington roars past, a momentary blast of sound and air, after which peace descends again and the city recedes to a mere hum in the background.
Alan remembers similar spaces in the hospital grounds, the out of sight corners left unattended by nursing staff and porters, overgrown abandoned places for condemned equipment and broken furniture. Places, like this, where he could seek solitude amongst the rubbish. He lies back on the mattress, arms crossed behind his head, the contortions in his muscles momentarily appeased. This is freedom; here, not in the house with its residents’ rules or the streets where people stare.
When the wards closed they told him his dreams would come true. You’ll have a future to look forward to, out in the real world. Yet somehow the kindness of the real world is as obscure as it was behind the high hospital walls, and found only in rare places. Alan gazes into the blue sky, wonders about the future, thinks about his own room with a sink, and a cup of tea with Kelly, if there’s time.