walls, lakes

Totterdown Court is the urban equivalent of an ox-bow lake. The cars along the main road have cut themselves a newer, more direct channel. A wide pavement has been lain down. Houses have disappeared, replaced with industrial units, a car hire business. Totterdown is the only domestic building left – and must surely be doomed. Even the name on the outside has gone, leaving only a trace of letters in the grime. It’s a leap of faith parking up and walking to the front door. With my bag on my shoulder, I feel like a fisherman on an expedition to a secret spot.
Up to a thirties glass case with painterly numbers, and slots for cards indicating IN or OUT. A buzzer intercom with dirty white Bakelite knobs.
No reply.
Even though it’s half past ten in the morning I try the TRADESMAN button. The mechanism clicks and lets me through in to a high and echoing hallway, blue marmoleum on the floor, remnants of stained glass fruit in some of the landing windows as I walk up to the third floor.
To Patrick’s door.
I knock and wait.
After a second and third – some grumbling and shuffling. An indistinct figure through the safety glass, and the door opens.
‘I havn’ee got any pants on,’ he says.
He’s about sixty, six feet tall, with the kind of thick, blooming peppery grey beard that looks less like hair and more like chiselled granite. He’s wearing a thin blue nylon tracksuit top without anything underneath. His lower half is naked.
‘Hi, Patrick. I’m Jim from the Hospital Avoidance Team. I’ve just come round to see you’re okay.’
‘I’m okay. Okay? I’m okay.’
‘Do you mind if I come in and have a chat.’
‘By all means,’ he says, letting go of the door and almost falling over. Amazingly, like a gyroscope running down but still just about maintaining to the vertical, he keeps his balance and staggers back into the front room.
‘Please excuse me,’ he says. ‘But ah’m goin’ back to bed.’
His bed has been dragged into the front room. Judging by the mess, the scattered food and clothes and letters and stuff, it’s the one place in the flat he occupies. The kitchen is crapped-up. I can’t bring myself to look in the toilet.
‘Tim did you say?’
‘Jim.’
‘Jim?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s a good Gaelic name,’ he says.
‘Is it?’
‘Seumus.’
‘Or Jacob in Hebrew.’
‘Aye. If you say so.’
‘So. How are you doing?’
‘How am I doing? I’m drunk, man, as you can probably tell.’
There’s a cluster of vodka bottles on the table by the bed.
‘I fell over and busted my ankle,’ he says, pulling the filthy duvet back again and looking mournfully at his foot.
‘I think it’s a bad sprain,’ I say. ‘They’d have cast it if it was broken. Or put a boot on or something.’
‘Would they?’
‘I think so.’
‘It hurts like fuck, whatever you want to call it.’
‘I bet.’
He covers the foot up again and lies back on the pillow.
‘Jim you say?’
‘Yep.’
‘What d’you think when you see a character like me, Jim?’
I shrug.
‘I see someone who’s got a problem with alcohol.’
‘A problem with alcohol, y’say?’
‘I think so. I mean – you fell over and totalled your ankle, for a start. I bet you fell over because of the drink.’
‘You think so?’
‘Probably. Are you getting any help with your drinking problem, Patrick?’
He rests an arm over his eyes, and takes a long, sighing in-breath that seems to inflate his whole body and leave him thinner than he was.
‘I used to be a bricklayer,’ he says. ‘More than that, Jim. I used to work in stone.
‘Like a stonemason?’
‘Nah! I don’t mean carving fancy names and gargoyles and all that rubbish. I used to build walls. Beautiful walls, man. I built this one wall, I was so proud of it. The way it jes’ grew up out of the ground, y’know? Like a fuckin’ wave. It was so natural. And the people of the village, y’know what they did? They wrote my name on it! They wrote it out on a slab at the gateway: Patrick’s wall. Patrick built this.’
He opens his eyes and starts to cry.
‘Patrick’s wall, they wrote. They liked it so much they wrote my fuckin’ name.’
He wipes his face on the duvet.
‘You could get back to all that,’ I say. ‘If you got some help with the drink I’m sure you could get back to the stone work.’
He looks at me.
‘Have you got kids?’ he says.
‘Two. Two girls. Fourteen and ten.’
‘I used to have a fifteen year old. A beautiful wee boy. And he died.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘He feckin’ died, man. Do y’know what that’s like?’
‘I can’t imagine.’
‘And d’you know how he died?’
‘No.’
‘On a boating lake. A fuckin’ boating lake, for chrissake! For boats!’
He collapses back on the pillow and cries some more. I tell him how sorry I am.
After a minute or two the grief leaves him as suddenly as it came. He opens his eyes and looks round.
‘Bit of a shit hole, this. D’you not think?’
‘It could do with a tidy.’
‘Are you offering?’
‘No!’
‘Quite right, Jim. Quite right. Is that your name? Jim?’
‘Yep.’
He holds out his hand and I shake it. A heavy, calloused hand, sensitive, capable. Then he relaxes back on the bed and shuts his eyes again.
‘Don’t mind me, Jim,’ he says, gathering the duvet around him. ‘Don’t you worry. I’ll be all right once I’ve had a kip. And you cut this bastard foot off.’

4 thoughts on “walls, lakes

  1. It’s difficult, that’s for sure. There’s a MH aspect to his case, something that the drinking is only making worse. We have access to a MH nurse who’ll take care of that side of things / see if Patrick’s already known to services. He certainly needs plenty of help coming off the booze. If he managed it, the rest might fall into place. Easier said than done, of course. You can be offered all the help there is and still not manage it – esp. given how insidious / overwhelming alcohol dependency is. Very sad case – as they often are.
    Thanks for the comment, NH. Hope all’s good with you.
    J

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  2. It seems the heavy hand of grief hasn’t left Patrick yet.Until he’s dealt with his son’s death (helped or not) then he’ll be a walking vodka bottle.Very sad.

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  3. Absolutely. It looked like he was in complete self-destruct mode. But still – some positives. He’s got a flat, for a start. And a trade, if he managed to sober up. But like you say, very sad.

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