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.’

can I move

Callum is watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. Butch and Sundance have escaped to Bolivia and are trying to get hired as guards on a mule train. The foreman wants to know if Sundance can handle a gun, so he throws a rock a little way off. Sundance adopts his gunslinger stance, but the foreman says he just wants to see if he can shoot, taking the gun out of Sundance’s holster and putting it in his hand. Sundance misses. The foreman turns away, but then Sundance says : ‘Can I move?’, draws his gun, shatters the rock, spins the gun around and slips it back in his holster. ‘I’m better when I move’ he says.

If there is a subliminal message in this for Callum, he quickly shoots it down – as ruthlessly as Sundance – with a remote control instead of a pistol.

‘Alright?’ he says, returning the remote to a pocket slung like a holster on the side of the recliner.

I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve seen Callum. It always follows the same pattern. Callum falls over, the ambulance picks him up, then refers him to our team for review. Callum is middle-aged and morbidly obese, dividing his time between the recliner, the bed and the floor. He’s locked-in to a self-destructive loop of ill health and dependency, his whisky drinking and poor diet making him heavier and more unwell, which makes him less mobile and more likely to fall, exacerbating his depression, driving him back to the whisky. The change he most needs to make is to stop drinking, of course. Callum knows that as well as anyone. It’s difficult though. The drinking long ago stopped being a way of making him feel more relaxed and comfortable in the world; these days he drinks just to stay level. Mentally, anyway.

We check him over, talk through what happened, review his equipment, read through his notes. Environmentally his flat is as good as it gets: clean and clutter-free, with plenty of room to move with his walker, more grab rails around the place than a cross-channel ferry, emergency pull cords, carers coming in three times a day.
‘It’s embarrassing,’ he says. ‘I hate being like this.’
We talk about the possibility of another referral to the substance abuse service.
‘I’ve done all that,’ he says. ‘Nothing happened’ – as passively as if he were describing a trip to the garage to have a new exhaust fitted, and for some reason they didn’t bother. ‘I don’t know what to do.’

We end the visit as we always do, telling him we’ll update his GP.
‘Good luck with that,’ he says.
I shrug.
‘It’s easy for us to come back,’ I say. ‘You know how it goes.’

As I write the notes he puts the TV back on again. It’s the last scene. Butch and Sundance are badly wounded, reloading their pistols, crouching behind a wall. Meanwhile, dozens of Bolivian soldiers have taken up position around the place, ready to shoot. We know Butch and Sundance are doomed, but still, they share some more cute banter, something about Australia and a future we know they’ll never see. Suddenly Butch says ‘Wait! Did you see Lefors out there?’ Sundance says he didn’t. ‘Good,’ says Butch, relieved. ‘For a minute I thought we were in trouble.’ They run out into the open. There’s a volley of shots. The film freezes. The closing music plays.
‘Thanks a lot, guys! See you later!’ says Callum.
And he pours himself another drink.

hats off

Paul’s flat is an extemporary landscape. Hundreds of empty whisky bottles on the floor, standing up or lying down, a sea of glass around the lifeboat of the sofa; volcanoes of cigarette butts rising from dinner plate islands; a tangled undergrowth of pepperoni packets; squadrons of flies cutting patterns through the air or crawling enthusiastically over everything. And overlooking the dismal scene, glaring like a vengeful god from the top of a filing cabinet, Johnny Rotten’s autobiography: Anger is an Energy.

‘How are you today, Paul?’
He tugs his beard, shrugs.
‘I’m okay,’ he says. ‘More or less.’

It’s a strange feeling, standing amongst the crap, nowhere to put my bag or set up my kit to take blood. So I just stand there a while, and we chat.

‘I’m not going to hospital,’ he says.
‘It’s entirely your decision. So long as you understand the risks.’
‘They keep on about potassium, calcium, magnesium…’
‘They’re all really important minerals, Paul. If you’re low it puts you at risk of serious heart problems. Even cardiac arrest.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘They’ve said that. But why?’
‘It’s complicated. I’m not even sure. But it’s something to do with the electrical conductivity of the heart. If your levels are screwed your heart can develop arrhythmias and stop working altogether. So…’
‘But why?’
‘I just don’t know enough about it. You’d need to speak to a cardiologist. Or Google it.’
‘Google it! The paramedics said that! Google it! That’s all everybody does these days.’
‘I know! It’s pretty handy, though. You gotta admit.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, stroking his beard in that classic beard-stroking way thoughtful men have, massaging the pointy end of it with a pulsing motion of his hand like an octopus swimming backwards.

I have to admit, his hair and beard are pretty amazing. He’s so unwashed, they’ve set into a wavy pattern like it’s carved from wood, the hair on his head progressing backwards in defined steps, the beard the other way as a counterbalance.

‘I drink,’ he says, releasing the beard long enough to make a grand gesture at the ruin of the room. ‘It’s an addiction.’
‘I can see that. I know it’s difficult, Paul, but there is help out there. You know – medication, therapy.’
‘Yes,’ he says, back on the beard. ‘Yes, I understand.’

There’s a blue metal chair in the dark of the galley kitchen. I wade through the bottles, tip it clear, wade back and plant my things on it.
‘Shall I take that blood, then?’
‘Be my guest!’ he says, rolling up his sleeve.

We chat whilst I work.
‘The doctor that came the other day? She said she thought I was more intelligent than she was. I said that may well be, but I don’t see what that has to do with the problem at hand.’
‘She was probably thinking about mental capacity. Whether you understood the risks you were running saying no to hospital.’
‘I’m not saying no to hospital as a general principle. I’m merely advancing the idea that it may not be the answer to my particular question.’
‘That’s fair enough, then. But your recent blood results are pretty poor.’
‘I’ve signed the forms,’ he says. ‘All done?’
‘Yep! All done.’
‘Thank you.’
I tape him up.
‘Have you got a cat?’ I say, noticing a flyblown bowl over by the window.
‘Somewhere,’ he says. ‘She’s shy. I’ve also got a collection of hats. How many hats do you think I have?’
‘Ten? That’s not a collection. That’s not even a weekend.’
I can’t imagine him wearing a hat. Maybe a stovepipe. Or a beehive beanie. Nothing else would fit.
‘One hundred!’ he says. ‘One hundred hats!’
And I can’t help looking round.