The train passes by a beamed Tudor farmhouse, quaint union flag bunting dancing beneath the gable reminds me of school days. A smell of wet leather shoes, pigtails and blazers. My forehead judders on the window. Droplets streak the glass. Relentless momentum, whips them away and carries me back to England. To you, Dan. Fields pass by, stark grey trees appealing to an empty sky. I feel alone and older. I see only my own face, looking unimpressed at me from the glass. I’m doing my best here but it’s never been enough. For me or you. Beyond that gaze, I notice the landscape slows, stops. Broken momentum on the border of England. Echoing my own reluctance, perhaps.
I look up the outside of the train. See – not much. Stalled seasons are hanging on with a shiver of frost. There are only a few leaves left. My eyes rest on a crow as it lifts awkwardly – like a whipped black rag up into the grey gloaming from the brittle stalks on the sidings. He can move on, but they stand, as alone and cold and bare as I. I turn and instead look up the carriage. Just a couple of passengers, glued to their phones. Not sure what I’m expecting to see, the ticket collector perhaps.
I wonder why we’ve stopped. Then I hear a voice, there are trespassers on the tracks.
The drinks cart passes and some deaf old woman asks what’s going on. She’s greeted with more honesty than she expects. Someone jumped off a bridge onto the line. Happens all the time. I can’t help but dwell on the horrible irony, and I see Dan there in my head, standing over the flood waters on Worcester Bridge contemplating the thin ice crust flowing on black swirls below him. Rocking slightly, his feet adjusting on the worn wooden rail where I played pooh sticks as a kid. The wind whipping at his clothes. The train rocks back into a sad jolt forward. I stare at the dirty smears on the window and try not to think anymore. It’s a long ride.
I board the bus when I get to Birmingham. As we move again south, all around me is the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ that inspired Elgar’s composition. More bunting and bullshit. The Malvern hills, where I walked as a child expecting more. We walked the dogs and smiled sometimes, but walked into lives with little hope, little glory, difficult and lonely. The hills are replaced by the retired red brick of Worcester’s industrial past, town I’ve not seen in a long time. More than porcelain and Worcester Sauce: The machines of empire’s glory reach up around me. ‘Wider still and wider’, just their labour changed. Cotton mills are no more; they’re scalped, hollowed out and scavenged for lucrative latte consumption. For those who can afford it. We hung out at McDonalds. When we weren’t skint. With Sean the manager, your friend, Dan, who lifted his girlfriend onto the cooker when he was fucking her out the back after close and burnt rings onto her arse. I remember you laughing. And I did too. A little unsure, glad I wasn’t that girl, but laughing with you all like I was one of the boys. Mostly we’d hang out at the fried chicken place over the road where they sometimes sold drugs and the wings were cheap. They were bats wings you said. You sometimes worked there, gave me free chips when I was hungry so I didn’t need to walk around in the cold.
I see the river now, the historic Cathedral, and a group of roundheads and cavaliers in full costume who are feeding the swans. Heading off to recreate the Civil War, The Battle of Worcester. ‘Fidelis Civitas’ they say, a faithful city. Opposite the gothic Cathedral is a congregation of the faithless. Outcast in a tent city. Drinking and watching the boats.
The route the bus takes is from my childhood. Trips in the back of my parents’ car. I remember happy times… marred by hard times that followed. We whip past the ‘Old Toll House’, a hexagonal antique shop on the turning. Quaint. Unchanged for years. I can’t believe it’s survived recession with its permanent collection of old doors leaning against the wall outside. A sentinel to a dusty past. Unaffected and oblivious. The past is a world only the wealthy can afford to cling to. The rest of us have to deal with now.
And now the Coach and Horses Inn, narrow art shops with hand painted signs declaring them ‘Olde’, and too pricey for me when I lived here. But I remember the streets well, I walked them for hours so I could go home tired enough to sleep in the damp. I visited the phone boxes all along this street, checking for coins. Even slept by the bins behind The Cavaliers once. Lived history that is. I don’t want to recreate it. It sickens me. I’m just back to see Dan again. Somehow make him ok. I think of his voice on the phone last night. Wish he’d get out. I think of how it’ll feel when he holds me. My friend. His smell. And all the past I’ll hold with him. ‘Worcester Foregate Street,’ the driver says.
I get a bus straight to the hospital. Hadley Unit. Hidden away, round the back. Embarrassed automatic doors open with a jolt then slow whir. And a deserted corridor is suddenly starkly illuminated by a series of lights with every few steps I take as I walk down the corridor toward the ward: Pi-pi-pi-pi-pi-pink. As if to stress I have a shock ahead. I look at the time. Peer through the double doors. Someone in a red hoodie is peering back at me. Hoodie begins mouthing something. I feel silly. I walk away, then think that’s even sillier. Anxiety is prickling through my nerves, unsettling my stomach. I return to the doors and push: locked. I peer through the security glass again. There’s a guy with a shaved head and pale scrubs walking over.
‘Hi, I’m here to see Dan Cooper.’
‘It’s Hannah is it?’ He leads me into a colourful staff kitchen with a wall of lockers. ‘He’s been talking about you all day. So you’ve come down from Scotland?’
‘Yes, I’m a student at the Uni there,’ I say quickly, proudly. Like a professional. Like you.
‘…that’s a long way.’ he continues, not really listening. ‘Can I see what you’ve got there? Is that for Dan?’
‘I assume he’s allowed sugar?’ I smile and I hand him a carrier bag of sweets and fizzy pop that I bought in the bus station. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Olly, I’m a nurse’s assistant. Leave your rucksack in a locker.’ He rummages, ‘You can give him these.’ He hands me armfuls of haribo and chocolate, some drop to the floor from my laden arms. I frown. ‘We’ll look after the fags and deodorant.’
‘Thank you. I’ll put these back then.’ I start putting the sweets I’m holding back in the bag.
Olly looks bewildered. ‘No, uh, no you… can’t take a carrier bag in.’
Olly swipes a card. And as he leads me through with my armful of snacks an image assaults my mind. Dan with plastic sucked in around his face, choking, turning blue. I feel stupid and sad.
And there is Dan. I want to throw out my arms and hold him. But I notice my armfuls of junk food. This disrupts the momentum, the reunion… The way it should be. He puts his arms around me anyway. Haribo rustles between us and I smell the warm material of his slightly smoky clothes. ‘Hello babe. Thanks for coming,’ he says.
Olly takes us through a bright new lounge with a TV and tall windows. People are milling about, but we can’t stay, they put us in a small room with a table and chairs. It’s unnatural. Like I’m in an interview. I can’t be myself with him here. I dump the sweets on the table and we stand and hold each other for a few minutes. We sit. ‘Did you bring the fags?’ he asks immediately.
‘Yes, that Olly’s got them.’
‘Oh no… they ration them. That’s why I asked, I thought you could sneak them past.’
‘You should’ve said.’
‘I’m only allowed one every 2 hours.’
‘Wow, you must be going nuts!’
‘I am,’ he says, ‘crazier than ever,’ he winks, begins ripping open the haribo and stuffing several into his gob, ‘It’s so good to see you Hannah.’
‘Me too. I’ll bring your clothes tomorrow. Tell me what happened.’
‘It’s been awful. I can hear them outside now. My family. They’re being held in this pub, I can hear them calling me. So, I started doing what they told me to, they said they needed me. My family. I can hear them crying and they’re getting beaten up. My niece, Sophie, I could hear her crying. So I did what they said, they told me to walk, and turn left, and right, straight on, needed to find them, and they take me to the bridge. I crossed the bridge and they said no, go back, and they stopped me half way over and they said, take the long walk. Take the long walk. So I go to the edge and I’m climbing over and just gonna jump into the flood waters and this woman grabs me. She talks me into climbing back. She takes me to A an E …then they send me home.’
‘Home? So, why are you back here?’
‘The voices were bad then, telling me, morning and night, those people in my house, they’re not really my family. I couldn’t sleep. I could hear my family’s voices and they sound real you know? And they say it’s a wind-up, they’re not your real family. They laugh at me. Like I’m on the Truman Show or something. Karen got them to come get me.’
‘Your sister did?’
‘Yes, they sectioned me, but she wasn’t my real sister. So they put me in there. They took me to the Elgar Unit, Newtown Hospital. That was full. I could hear my family being held at this pub. They were crying and then I heard little Sophie screaming, like they were torturing her. I couldn’t stand that, you know? So I smashed the window and jumped out and ran to a car and got in and I told the driver to DRIVE but the guy who was chasing me jumps in the back, this nurse, he tries to grab me and he has an injection and he’s got hold of me and I remember my toothbrush in my pocket and the voices say to stab him with it cause I’ve got to get away to help Sophie. Sophie’s screaming. I was about to sink it into his eye. Can you imagine? If they’d not stopped me?’
‘Holy shit Dan. What the fuck?’
His face changes from distressed to self-aware. ‘Well… I stopped myself, really. Cause, I thought… that’s crazy, isn’t it? But-‘ I don’t know what to say. This can’t be real. Bullshit Dan. Bullshit. But I know it’s not.
‘Well there would be no going back on that one.’ I say. He keeps looking at the window. Where the voices come from. ‘Is the driver pressing charges? You must’ve really freaked them out.’
‘Yeh, I don’t know, they haven’t said anything. But they upped me to section 3. Then brought me to this secure ward. 28 Days in this shithole.’ He leans forward, shaking a little, ‘The sedative I was on before, it really knocked me out, and I can’t cope with the anxiety now they’ve lowered it. Can you imagine it? I can hear my family being tortured. Sophie is screaming. Screaming, constantly and I can’t get to her. They won’t let me go and help her. ‘ He whispers, glances at the door, ‘I can’t stand it. I tried to hang myself, an hour ago with my cord from my hoodie and my jogging bottoms. It’s hidden in my room. I must’ve tied it wrong cause the knot slipped.’ He sounds sad. My stomach flips, the door opens. It’s Olly.
‘Time for your fag Dan,’ he smiles. They take Dan away. I call to a nurse and she comes.
‘Hi, err… I am. I’m just a bit worried, cause he’s just told me,’ I fidget like I’m reporting him to the teacher for nicking a chocolate bar. ‘He …tried to kill himself an hour ago, with the cord from his, his thing from his…’ I am gesturing like a hoody but the word is gone. ‘His trousers and his clothes, the cord. He tried to… to hang himself.’ The words come out quietly, like I’m swearing in a sacred place. But profanity is symbolic, these words solidify all around me. Hung by a real cord. We sit down. It’s all in a day’s work, ‘Ok, well, first, I need to tell you, in here we do make searches of their possessions and we are very careful. Dan has been with us all afternoon, in the TV room, he hasn’t been on his own. He hasn’t been distressed or talked about voices. I really don’t know-‘
She thinks he’s lying. Thinks I’m believing lies. She asks me about our friendship. ‘He’s my oldest friend,’ I say.
‘Yes, that’s pretty much what Dan said,’ she says. Well, why wouldn’t he? She thinks I don’t know him. He was telling the truth, he believed what he was saying.
‘I know, I can see you’re being careful.’ I say, everything in here is suicide-proof, ‘Maybe it wasn’t an hour ago, maybe it was earlier or something. But- he said he tried to hang himself. He has cord in his room.’ It’s true. It’s true. Then it strikes me. They’re trying to cover their arses. Not be held negligent. It’s all ok if you can say you ticked all the boxes.
But I don’t say anything. Dan returns. She asks him whether he has anything in his room that they should know about. ‘Cord from your jogging bottoms perhaps.’ She says flatly. His head falls and he takes her away. They’re talking for a while. I fidget uncomfortably. Hope he forgives me.
When he comes back I hold him, ‘I love you. Sorry Dan, I can’t have you doing things like that, can I? I don’t want to lose you. I know you’re worried about your family. But doing that won’t help anyone.’ This sounds like what you say, as insincere as the concept of recovery itself. Life continues outside these walls. And it isn’t suicide-proof. ‘I’ve had my own wobbles too, you know. It’s not the answer.’
He sits back. ‘I know you have, but look at you now.’
I’m suddenly aware of the gulf between our lives. I was scared of Worcester: a skeleton key that would open up my past. But my life’s changed. ‘You’ll get there too.’ I say, sounding very serious. I swallow embarrassment. ‘You’ll be ok.’ But he won’t, will he? I push that from my head. There little to catch people these days. ‘You can move beyond it. You just need to stabilise, get rid of the drink. There’s too much pressure, being around your family drinking doesn’t help. Come up to Glasgow, there’s more support. You’ll meet a nice girl, someone who treats you right… who wants to bounce on your cock all day.’ He laughs a little. ‘See that’ll make you smile won’t it.’
‘But seriously, you need good friends round you. Like I did.’ I hold his hand.
‘I know. Thanks Han. But I need to look after Mum, you know that.’
Dan called me last week when his Mum fell and broke her hip. He said she was pissed and Karen let her climb the stairs.
Outside, life continues.
For Dan it all resumes in 28 days.
Now he squeezes my hand and says, ‘She may never walk again. They need me. Karen can’t do it, she’s drinking and she’s just no good at reading and forms and stuff.’
I don’t know how to tell him not to look after her but I do, ‘You must think about yourself.’
‘Do you remember that time in the garden back at my place?’ I do. I remember night, blackness, after my family left, sitting in a ditch, rocking and not wanting him to touch me. Because he can’t care, no-one does. Wanting to die. We talk. But I forget what we’re saying: it’s all blackness in the night. But I had a friend. ‘You saved me,’ I say.
‘Oh, I… I am feeling tired actually, babe.’ I see his face begin to droop. The sedatives were kicking in. As Olly escorts me to the door I see the girl in the red hoody try to pick up a chair with both hands to swing at the window. I suddenly notice a bushy crotch – below the waist she’s completely naked. She’s grabbed by two female nurses in a struggle to release the chair. I’m a bit worried for her now, then Olly pushes me through the door.
‘It looks like I’m needed. Sorry, Goodbye.’ It clicks. Silence. The light goes off.
I now stand in the dark outside the sealed doors. I didn’t say enough.
I get off the bus by the shops and call Karen. It’s snowing. Eventually she pads up in slippers and winds me back past the bins, down an alleyway through the council estate. ‘You’ve seen my brother then? How is he?’ I tell her everything, everything but the bit about the string. ‘I would visit, but… it’s just too much money.’ It’s only £2.50. She sucks on a fag and stomps it into the snow under her slipper. ‘He doesn’t hate me for calling them does he?’ Her tone sounds oddly insincere, like she’s enjoying the drama. She says, ‘I had to you know… we’ve had enough of him, I’ve got Mum to look after.’ Snow falls around us. We’re outside the house.
As Karen unlocks the door I see a statue on the 5ft square of yard. Snow curls past it. A concrete Greek cherub, white paint shell peeling off from his face. A phantom mask exposing the crumbling deformities beneath. This is England. Little hope for most and fuck all glory. I feel exposed now. I think of Sally years ago. Box of wine in the morning, then working hard in that nursing home. How’d she do it? Running about the house after Dan. And me when I stayed. And we’d drink. I needed to escape. Didn’t do Dan any good taking him with me. Or did he take me. Is some of this on me? I feel a bit sick.
We go in and there’s a single bed where the sofa once was. Next to it, a commode and a wheelchair. I’ve been wondering what I’ll say when I see her. I have a knot inside. It’s comprised of the unfairness of her life. And the pain that tells you, you can’t do anything but rock in a ditch.
‘Oh Sally…’ I sigh. On the bed is a pile of sheets and somewhere within that is a thin, thin body with a cumbersome white cast on one leg. When we hug it’s like holding a baby bird. I tell her how I’ve missed her and she thanks me for coming. Would I like a coffee? I sit on an armchair and answer questions; about as nice as it could be for a secure mental facility… anxious… still hearing the voices. Then, I hesitate, ‘It would help if you can go maybe, Karen?’
‘Hannah. I don’t get paid till next week. Mum only gets £51 a month benefits – they won’t give her disability.’ She empties strong white cider into a chipped mug with a fizz. The stuff we got drunk on as kids. ‘How’re you feeling?’ she asks.
‘Exhausted,’ I say. My eyes rest on the mantelpiece, Christmas cards and photos, Dan and Karen as teenagers smiling so happily. And little Sophie before she was removed.
‘Bet it was funny though, eh?’ Karen smiles.
‘Well him. Cause he’s nuts! He says funny things don’t he? I mean, like… we’re not really his family!’ she laughs, ‘He says Sophie’s being hurt. She’s in care, Dan! But he don’t listen. He’s off his rocker following his voices around the town. Did you laugh?’ I pause a moment. She’s grinning at me. Like, properly grinning. ‘Was he funny?’
I need to answer.
‘Well… no, not really. He’s my friend… it’s… sad really.’ Her face is searching mine. I say, ‘He does say strange… things I guess… but, I’ve never seen him this bad.’
Sally smiles, ‘He’s a nutty boy my Dan! I do love him,’ she says sipping her cider, eyes blissfully locked on the TV.
I sleep well. Take my time the next day, cutting the cord off all Danny’s hoodies and jogging bottoms, putting them into a holdall. I come down to breakfast and Karen is pouring the same strong cider for her and Sally. It’s time for the commode. There’s no hoist, Karen lifts her by hand. So I offer to help. They seem pleased. I hold the leg in its cast. Sally cries out. She’s supported, and now on the chair. I go make my tea, sit by the window looking out at the yard where Dan and me had that dark night in ’95.
There’s a notebook on the table. Open. It reads ‘morefeen 9am’ written by Karen who calls me back from the kitchen. ‘The transport’s here for her hospital check. Grab her coat. You’ll have to go in your pyjamas Mum, ok?’ Paramedics help lift her into the wheelchair. ‘Don’t you have a hoist?’ Karen gets a ramp for the step. They manoeuvre Sally out the door then Karen points to it. ‘Take it in or some thieving prick’ll nick it.’
The faceless cherub watches on. The house falls quiet. My flurry of benevolence lingers but will melt with the snow. Think of yourself Dan. You’ll get there. The sermon for faith in a non-existent afterlife. 28 days ticking by… till the hospital expel him again. Then Sally needs him. I can’t fix this.
But I can take him his clothes.
Published here first – 15th October 2018