mr henry’s hat

An ancient woman is sitting on a bench by the front door of the block. She’s wearing a scarlet beret, red lipstick, red scarf, a heavy red coat and red shoes. Even her shopping bag is red. She gives me a broad, square smile as I say hello – and all in all it’s hard to resist she’s en route to a fancy dress party dressed as a letterbox.
‘Keep warm,’ I say, unnecessarily, as she’s wearing so many clothes she’s technically still indoors.
‘Oh – I don’t mind,!’ she says, batting the air. ‘It’s February you’ve got to watch.’
‘Or April,’ I say. ‘April is the cruelest month.’
‘April? Who said that?’
‘Some poet or other.’
‘April? That’s Spring! When all the blossom comes out!’
‘You’re right!’ I say. ‘I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe he was being ironic?’
She shrugs and pulls her shopping trolley closer.
‘I like April,’ she says. ‘But then I’m not a poet.’

Meanwhile, Jorge has buzzed the number of Mr Henry, the patient we’ve come to see. We’ve been told how hostile and non-compliant he is, so we give him plenty of time to answer. He hasn’t been picking up his phone, so we’re bound to simply turn up, on spec. Just before Jorge gives up and buzzes again, the intercom crackles on.
Who the fucking hell is that buzzing? Stop buzzing! Will you stop with the fucking buzzing? I get to the button as fast as I can! I’ll fucking fall over. All these people! My God! What d’you want…?
Just as Jorge leans in to say who we are, the door clicks as Mr Henry releases it.

I look back at the woman on the bench. She smiles and shrugs, and directs her gaze outwards.

Mr Henry had declined a visit from the therapists who’d come round the previous day. Our job is to follow that visit up, read him the riot act, and see what helps he needs.

There’s a holly wreath on his flat door, but I’m guessing it’s there more for the needles than the seasonal goodwill.
Jorge takes a breath, and knocks.
‘Come in!’ screams Mr Henry. ‘Will you just fucking come in? COME IN!’
Jorge tries the door. It’s locked.
‘The door’s locked,’ says Jorge.
‘What the fuck is it now?’
Jorge leans in closer and speaks up.
‘You’ll need to open the door for us because it’s locked…’
‘Stop fucking shouting!’ yells Mr Henry. ‘I’m going as fast as I can! You fucking people! Do you want me to fucking kill myself…?’

We take a step back.
‘Do you think he’ll shoot me through the door?’ says Jorge.
He laughs, but we both step a little more to the side.

After an age of swearing and cursing from inside the flat, the lock flips and Jorge slowly pushes it open. A pale, round face looms round the side of it. It’s like being confronted by a nursery rhyme illustration for Hey Diddle Diddle – except a more adult version, where the man in the moon has an alcohol problem and can’t fucking bear the cat, the fiddle, the cow and anyone else who happens past.
‘What the fuck do YOU want?’ he says. But before we can capitalise on the situation and leave, Mr Henry suddenly seems much more compliant. ‘You’d best come in,’ he says, timidly. We follow him inside.
He positions himself in front of a leather BarcaLounger, lets go of his zimmer frame, and drops into it like a paratrooper exiting a plane. Except – he screams as he drops, and swears inordinately as he bounces a couple of times in the great, black catcher’s mitt of the chair.
‘Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!’ he says.

‘Where does it hurt?’ I ask, when he comes to a stop.
He stares up at me, and for a moment I think he’s going to throw something. But the moment passes and he nods for us both to sit down on two formal dining chairs just opposite.
‘I don’t like people standing over me,’ he says, simply and conversationally. The tone is so different it’s disorienting.
‘Now…,’ he says, after a theatrical age, ‘… wear’s my hat?’
‘Your hat?’
‘Mr Henry! There’s really no call for you to shout at us and carry on like this. We’ve been nothing but polite since we came here, Mr Henry. Listen – we’ve come to help you, and we really will try to do that. But your part of the contract is to be polite, not swear and…’
‘Fetch me my hat, SIR,’ he says.
‘Well. Seeing as you asked nicely…’
There’s a dark fedora on a pile of old newspapers over by the window. I hand it to him.
‘No!’ he shouts. ‘NO!’
‘What do you mean, no?’
He relaxes back in the chair.
‘Feel the brim,’ ‘he says. ‘The luxury of pure felt.’

mr n.

Mr Norrington has a long history of disappearing. When he goes, he goes suddenly, ‘Marie Celeste’ style, flat door open, television blaring, lights on, mug of tea cooling on the table. And where he goes? No-one has the faintest idea.

Reading his notes, it seems that things just build up. He gets agitated by the number of health professionals calling round, becomes increasingly non-compliant, combative, even aggressive. The last notes on his file are succinct.
At this point Mr Norrington decided to become angry and order us out of the flat, slamming the door behind us and banging on the glass with his fist. Double-up visits only, please.

That evening he was gone. And – following the protocol for any patient that vanishes whilst under our care, and especially with someone with so many health problems – we were obliged to do the usual ring-arounds, the hospital, next of kin, scheme manager, drunken friend, all of whom had pretty much the same thing to say, which was that basically this was what he did, and to try not to worry too much. The same protocol was clear that we should register his disappearance to the police, who (I imagine) took down the details with the same level of enthusiasm as the person giving them.

We can’t discharge the space on our case list where a patient used to be. So the consequence was that over the next few weeks Mr Norrington kept cropping up, albeit in an oblique, third-hand kind of way. You’d overhear someone mention his name on the phone, or two people talking about him in the kitchen, or see that someone had been tasked to go round and see if he’d come back, or liaise with the police again. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a gang of nurses wearing t-shirts with his face on them climb out onto the roof of the old hospital and set off a flare. Monitor the radio. Stakeout his flat with coffee cups on the dashboard, doughnuts, cigarettes.

It’s the last hour of my shift. I’ve finished my visits, all the follow-up admin. I’ve put in a mileage claim, looked over my workload for the following day, organised my files. I’m so bored, I’ve even cleaned up the kitchen and put the dishwasher on. But there’s still an hour to go.
‘Shall I pop round and see if Mr N’s back?’ I say to Anna, the co-ordinator.
‘Yes but he is double-up, darklink,’ she says. ‘It’s too dangerous for you to go on your own.’
‘I’m fine with it,’ I say, yawning. ‘I promise I’ll be careful. And if anything happens, I accept full responsibility.’
‘It’s not that – it’s just we worry about you. I would hate for something to happen to you.’
‘Me too.’
‘You know what I mean. This Mr N he is very difficult and has very sharp teeth like wolf. Did you read his notes? He sounds to me quite an angry person.’
‘He does. But I won’t go inside. I’ll just pop round and see he’s alright. Then I’ll go. I don’t suppose he’ll want me to hang around.’
‘No. Only if he hungry and need somethink to roast for dinner. Oh my goodness! I’m scaring myself! Okay, Jim. You go and knock on the door. But keep us updated – okay? – and don’t take any unnecessary risk. We care very much about you, and anyway, tomorrow is busy day. We’ll be screwed if you not here.’
‘I promise I won’t take any risks. Back in a minute.’
‘Okay, darlink. Take care.’

I know this block well. I’ve been to any number of patients here, both in my time in the ambulance and latterly the rapid response community team. During the day the car park is crowded and impossible to get in; now, the lights in the corner cast their lights like ghostly nets across the empty lot. I strap my rucksack firmly on my back, being careful to take the torch out and put it easily to hand in my side pocket. I zip up my computer bag and carry it firmly in my left hand. If there’s any dodging or running or defending to do, it’s best to be zipped-up, well-balanced and ready to go. I remote-lock the car, and set off.

At the main entrance to the block I buzz Mr N’s flat, and wait. The only response I get is the barking of a fox somewhere off behind me in the communal gardens, a lonely, desperate sound, like someone being murdered.

I buzz the remote manager, aware of the security camera, ringed in tiny white halogen lights, monitoring me from high up in the canopy. When they answer I explain who I am and who I’ve come to see. They let me in.

I take the lift, even though it’s only three floors. Just before the lift door opens, I wonder if Mr N has been so enraged by his flat being buzzed he’s standing waiting for me in front of the doors with a cheese grater or worse, so I take a step back. The lift doors slide open; the hallway lights click on automatically, and then flicker in a cliche but appropriate manner.

I wait a moment. Peer round. Nothing. No-one.

Mr N’s flat door is shut. There’s a single panel of safety glass in the centre of the upper half. No lights visible within. I ring his flat bell, which has a slightly fried tone, no doubt exhausted by the number of fingers that have pressed it over the months and years.
No answer.
Because I’m not sure he would have heard the doorbell, I knock on the safety glass.
Almost immediately, there’s a voice from the other side.
Who is it? Who’s there?
‘Oh! Hi! My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant. From the hospital. Sorry to disturb you, Mr Norrington, but I’ve just popped round to see you’re okay.’
There’s a significant pause – just enough time to take a deep breath or grind some teeth, or both – and then a blurry face slides into view from the right and presses its cheek and eye against the glass. It’s an eerie, other-worldly effect, a splodge of approximate flesh, like a painting by Francis Bacon – the dark of the eye, the white of the teeth – sectioned into grids by the wire of the safety glass, the whole painting fitfully illuminated by the flickering hall lights.
When will you people leave me ALONE? I told them I didn’t want anyone coming round! It upsets me!
‘I’m sorry it upsets you, Mr Norrington. We don’t want to do that. We’re just worried about you and want to make sure you’re okay.’
Of course I’m okay? Why wouldn’t I be okay?
‘The last nurse who visited found your flat door open, the lights and everything on, you know. They just thought – they WORRIED – something had happened.’
So I like to go for a walk sometimes. Is that against the law?
‘No. Of course not.’
I can leave my front door open if I want to. It’s a free country.
‘It’s not very safe.’
I don’t care if it’s safe or not. It’s my flat. I can do what I want.
‘It’s more than that, though, Mr Norrington. They’re worried you’re not taking your medication and you might become very unwell.’
So what are you going to do? Force the pills down my throat? I’d like to see you try…
‘Absolutely, not. Look, Mr Norrington. I’m sorry to have disturbed you. I’ll tell them back at the hospital not to bother you anymore.
You called the police on me, didn’t you?
‘Well – not me, personally. But one of us did, yes. We’re obliged to do it when someone under our care goes missing.’
They came round and caused me all kinds of problems. YOU did that.
‘I’m sorry you found it upsetting. But y’know – the easiest way to avoid all this is to answer the phone or talk to someone calmly when they come round to see you. When you explain what it is you want – or don’t want – they’ll leave you alone. How does that sound?’
He doesn’t say anything.
Suddenly his face turns, draws back from the glass, there’s a swift flash of white, and the door resounds with a punch.
‘Okay, Mr Norrington. Okay. I’ll say goodbye then.’
He punches the door again, followed by a kick.
‘I’m glad you’re back safe and well, though.’
He presses his face back against the glass, not so much to see if I’ve gone, but to sense if I have, in a nightmarishly animal way.

I take the stairs. It’s quicker.