Harold doesn’t just suffer with anxiety – he’s anxiety incarnate. He is fret and worry and apprehension and dread, bound together with chains of despair. He is one hundred percent uneasiness, with a side order of foreboding. Anxiety has invaded his body, worn him thin as a pier post submerged by the tide, the black water rusting out the bolts, leaving just a pair of drilled holes for eyes.
‘But how do I know you’ll come?’
‘I will come, Harold. I promise. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.’
‘But what if you don’t? Who would I call?’
‘You could call the office. The number’s in the folder. But I should be there in twenty minutes, traffic permitting.’
‘What do you mean, traffic permitting? You mean you might not get here at all?’
‘Well – sometimes the traffic’s a bit sticky, Harold. But twenty minutes should do it.’
‘But it might not do it. It might not. And then where would I be?’
‘I think you just have to trust that things will work out.’
‘But you can’t guarantee it.’
‘No. I suppose when it comes down to it, I can’t.’
‘So you can’t promise me you’ll come?’
‘I can promise I’ll try.’
‘And you you’re not lying to me.’
‘No. I would never lie to you. I’ll always be honest. Even though it might not help sometimes.’
‘Because I don’t want to be told one thing and then something else happens.’
‘No. That’s not nice at all.’
‘So you’ll be here in twenty minutes?’
‘Twenty minutes. Try not to worry.’
‘But it could be longer?’
‘I’ll see you in a bit, Harold. Take care.’
I ring off. Take a breath.
Take care? Why did I say take care? It sounds too final – the kind of thing you say when you don’t think you’ll see someone for a while. Certainly longer than twenty minutes.
Even over the phone I can feel the glittering mycelia of anxiety reaching out to me. I shake them off. Take a breath. Drive more positively than normal. Get there in ten.
* * *
When Harold comes to the door it’s like someone throwing a curtain aside on a monologue.
‘I was worried I’d caused a stain on the road.’
‘A stain Harold? What do you mean?’
‘A stain. I could see a black patch on the road outside, and I was worried my milk had leaked from the bottle. There was a workman outside and I asked him about it.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said it wasn’t the milk, it was the repairs they’d made to a hole. He said if it was milk it would’ve dried by now. But it could’ve been the milk, couldn’t it? The milk could’ve leaked and caused damage to the road? And then what would I have done?’
‘It definitely wasn’t the milk.’
‘Positive. There are many things I’m not sure about, Harold, but I can absolutely guarantee your milk hasn’t leaked and damaged the road surface.’
‘But it was all black and shiny.’
‘That’ll be the bitumen.’
‘Yep. I would think.’
‘It’s a tarry substance they use to resurface roads.’
I take the opportunity to redirect his attention.
‘Would you mind if I came inside, Harold? The doctor wants me to take a little sample of blood…’
His round eyes deepen.
‘Blood? What on earth for?’
‘Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all about it.’
‘But why does the doctor want you to take my blood? Am I ill?’
‘It’s nothing to worry about, Harold…’
It carries on like this all the way in to the living room. I put my right hand lightly on his shoulder, hoping the human weight of it might reassure him a little. When we reach the living room he hitches up his trousers, lowers himself with enormous care into a ruined armchair, then sits with his hands gripping the armrests, his spindly legs close together, his slippered feet flat on the floor. Only when all this is safely done does he turn his drilled gaze onto me.
I try the usual tactics. I ask him about his family, what job he used to do. I ask casual but specific questions about his daily routines. What he eats. How he sleeps. I ask about his bowel habits. How he’s managing. I make banal comments about the weather. I make him tea, and so on. But despite adopting the conversational profile of a pebble, every last thing gets turned into evidence of imminent ruin and disaster.
I settle back.
The walls are covered with pictures: kitsch, mini motivational posters, one of a kitten in a boot saying I hate Mondays; some with blocks of text saying stuff like Only I can change my life… or something good is just about to happen – but the one that really catches my eye is a copy of the Mona Lisa with a photoshopped spliff in her hand.
I look back to Harold and smile.
‘Am I ever going to be well?’ he says. ‘And don’t lie to me.’