looking for geppetto

The front door is open. When I go in and close it, I see a sign thumb-tacked just above the letter box: Keep The Door Closed. 

I can hear Raymond talking animatedly on the phone in the front room. When I stick my head round the corner and wave, he waggles his free hand in the air and continues:

This is absolutely fucking ridiculous…. of course I can’t tell you the card number… well, for the simple reason I’ve lost the card. That’s the entire purpose of my call. If I had the card to read the number I wouldn’t be ringing you, would I? No I won’t calm down. I demand that you reinstate the two hundred pounds that was stolen from my account…. I don’t KNOW how they got the pin number. They’re CRIMINALS. That’s their JOB. All I want is for you to do YOUR job and give me back my money….

Something happens with the phone. He curses, holds it away from his face, bangs it twice on the arm of the chair and then tosses it out into the chaos of the room. 

‘Battery’s dead!’ he says. ‘You couldn’t do me a favour, could you?’

‘Of course.’

‘Locate the base that’s somewhere over there and charge it up again?’

The little front room is in a mess, as devastating as if flood water had unexpectedly rushed through the house and then back out again, leaving a tangled tideline of random stuff – trainers, trousers, duvet covers, exercise bike, milk cartons, who knows what. The only clarity in the place are the bookshelves, safely screwed to the walls out of harm’s way, the books neatly aligned in height order. They mostly seem to be about film, especially animation. Which makes sense, given the display on the hallway wall of some early Disney drawings – character studies of Jiminy Cricket, Figaro the cat, Pinocchio. 

I’d had some warning of the state of play this morning. The therapist who’d been in to see Raymond the day before had written an illuminating note: Patient reports that a stranger visited last night with a bottle of brandy – stayed for sex – stole money on his card. Police informed. 

Notes further back show that this isn’t an unusual event. Raymond has a long history of alcohol abuse and all the associated complications, medical and social. I’ve come round to dress the wound on his head, and generally see how he’s doing. 

He has no recollection of the fall.

‘Is that unusual for you?’ I say, gently cleaning the wound with saline, holding a swab to his eyeline to catch the drips.

‘No, sadly,’ he says. ‘It’s the booze, of course.’

‘I read that you tried a detox programme last year – which is good.’

‘Is it? Well – you get shunted into these things. My heart wasn’t in it. I’m afraid I didn’t just fall off the wagon I rolled it over and took everyone down with me.’

‘Worth trying again…?’

‘I don’t think so,’ he says, with a deflationary sigh. ‘It’s not worth it.’

I photograph the wound, dress it, check him over more thoroughly. He’s got lots of injuries, old bruises, new bruises. It’s like he drinks a bottle of brandy then throws himself into a giant tumbling machine. It’s a miracle he ever emerges. 

‘I love the Disney drawings you have on the wall,’ I say. 

‘Thank you.’

‘I remember the first time I saw Pinocchio. That scene where Lampy turns into a donkey. Good grief! And that bit where Pinocchio’s walking on the sea bed with a rock tied to his tail. Calling out Faaaa…ttttthhhherrr! And all the seahorses and clams and things come out to look. But when he asks them if they’ve seen Monstro the whale, they look terrified and disappear! I mean – what an absolute freakin’ nightmare!’

‘Yes,’ says Raymond. ‘I know. Story of my life.’


It’s quite a contrast to see the two of them together – Alex, wraith-like, matted hair, scooped eyes, shivering, hugging his legs in bed with a filthy duvet piled up around him; and Graham, the support worker from the alcohol and substance abuse team, shaven-headed, gym-fit, in a smart grey reefer jacket and leather man bag, perched on the arm of the sofa with his hands in his pockets. It could be a fashion shoot for an edgy magazine.
‘You’ve got this far, yeah?’ says Graham. ‘Hats off to you, mate. It’s no easy thing you’ve done there. Don’t go and spoil it now. After all we’ve been through. You got to realise – this is a disease we’re talking about, yeah? There are all kindsa toxins and shit floatin’ around your body right now. You can’t just expect to jump up and be cured. It’s a long, hard process. And you’re doin’ great, man! Isn’t he? This guy’ll tell ya…’
‘You are. Graham’s right. Alcohol addiction’s the hardest thing.’
‘See what I mean?’
Alex doesn’t seem convinced. He draws his legs closer to him, gives his head a peremptory shake.
‘I don’ know, man. I jus’ feel like I’m wastin’ everyone’s time. I mean – I brought it on myself.’
‘You can’t afford to think like that,’ says Graham. ‘Everyone’s different. You’re totally worth it, man.’
‘Is there a social worker involved?’ I ask Graham, flipping through his folder.
‘No,’ he says. ‘When they see they’re still drinking they pull out.’
He shrugs, scuffs his shoes in the trash.
‘It’s hard, but it’s just the way it is.’
‘It’s not like I’m not trying,’ says Alex.
‘Yeah – but there’s trying, and there’s doing, Alex. You’ve got to be in a position to accept the help. It’s just how it works. You know that.’
‘We’re here for you, though.’

There are several bottles within easy reach of Alex’s bed – a two litre bottle of cider, a couple of quarter bottles of vodka, some other, less obvious stuff in bottles with the labels torn off. A dull yellow light filters through the filthy windows. The flat is an apocalyptic mess; it looks like an extemporary shelter somebody hollowed out with their hands in a landfill site. Here and there you can just make out traces of the orderly life Alex once used to live. There’s a mountain bike in the hallway, quietly fossilising under a press of junk; over by the window-ledge, a tool box, some work boots.
‘We’ve got to find a way to keep you out of trouble long enough to detox properly,’ says Graham. ‘Yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ says Alex. He doesn’t sound convinced.
Graham shrugs, pushes his hands deeper into his jacket.
‘How long’ve we known each now?’ he says. ‘Gotta be nine, ten years.’
‘Is it?’ says Alex, rubbing his face. ‘Fuck, man! Nine years? No! That’s like…’ He screws up his face to figure out what percentage of his life that represents: ‘…that’s like… a fuck of a long time, man!’
‘I think so,’ says Graham. ‘First time I met you you’d just been beaten up and taken to hospital. You were in a bad way, my friend.’
‘Was I?’ says Alex. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Yeah – well – you don’t remember much, to be fair. You didn’t remember I was here yesterday, so maybe that’s not headline news.’
‘No. You’re right. Probably not.’
‘I’ve seen you in and out of hospital a hundred times. Lost sight of you for months on end when you took yourself off somewhere. You’d always turn up again, half dead, some new injury. And now look.’
He’s right. I’m reading through the latest discharge summary. For someone so young, Alex has a terrible list of things wrong. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s still here at all. Looking at him on the bed, though, it would be easy to think that maybe he wasn’t – that maybe he’d died that last time in hospital, but his spirit was so cussed it dragged itself back across town to find rest in this cold, cold bed.
‘It’s like training, yeah? You can’t just jump on a treadmill and bang out ten K. You might feel great at the end of it, but the truth is, if you don’t get the intervals right you can be setting yourself up for a lot of trouble. It’s all about the interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems, the way your body metabolises the shit and tries to get straight again. Jim’ll tell you. Hey?’
They both look at me – Graham as if he’s about to pick me up and bench press me, Alex with a haunted, shivery look.
‘That’s right,’ I say, ‘Uh-huh.’