"Wake up, you lazy pig!" she screamed from the kitchen.
I would probably have woken up anyway because the neighbours had left their halogen security light trained on our bedroom window again, like a Colditz search light probing around for unauthorised activity across the compound. There was certainly a din going on downstairs, and this turned out to be a dropped bowl of corn flakes on the lounge carpet, followed by loud recriminations and protracted sobbing. I hated great shows of emotion, and yet this seemed to be the primary method of communication in our house, as people swung freely from delirious mirth to cold silence without a second thought, or probably a first.
"Will you please eat your breakfast!" my wife implored.
"It's my turn on the piano!" my youngest answered.
" ... grandmother strangled in her own home..." contributed the man on T.V.
"Where's Dad?" said my eldest, followed by the sound of scampering footsteps coming up the stairs, and what sounded like a mumbled insult from my spouse in the background.
"Crash!" went the door as it bounced off the wall, and I received a loving hug, followed by a garrulous report of current domestic disputes downstairs.
"Okay petal, I'll be down in a minute" I said, trying to gather my wits together, as my sinuses tightened their hold on my forehead, and my rumbling bowels notified me of their overnight load. With little option, I swung my spindly legs over the side of the bed, inadvertently broke wind, and spotted the old 'Triang' toy crane sat on top of the wardrobe; its black bucket hanging over the side like a man on the gallows.
Yawn, belch, fart.
A short history of humanity.
I hadn't been sleeping well for weeks, going to bed dead beat, waking up in the early hours, and then remaining awake until four or five o'clock, when I would descend into a feverish stupor until the alarm went. I was constantly tired, sluggish and irritable, finding it harder than usual to concentrate, and carrying around a variety of aches and pains as I waded through the day like a Great War soldier waist dip in mud. At different times over the last six months, I'd had colds, aching joints, upset stomachs, sore throats, a vague dizziness and a woolly headed tendency to forget messages, or acquaintances' names, or the toast. Some days I would have to write out a list of reminders in the morning, to ensure that I didn't overlook something important, and even then I would occasionally mix up my shifts at work, or forget to attend a meeting. Worse than that, I'd sometimes experienced strangely delirious thoughts as I'd drifted off to sleep, or when I'd woken up in the middle of the night; something which altered the shadows and forms in the room and took a whip to my imagination. Something like acid flashbacks.
I couldn't put my finger on any one reason why my health was deteriorating, largely because there was a variety of leading contenders. For a start, my mother had died earlier in the year at the age of 79, and this had opened up a Pandora's box of conflicting emotions. We'd been reconciled for the last few years and there'd been regular visits, outings and set-piece celebrations which had brought us closer together as a family, but the past had been a long hard road. It was impossible to abolish history and no matter how generous and attentive my mother was towards the end, I simply couldn't throw off my old attitudes of resentment, wariness and distantly recalled pain. I was caught hopelessly between the present and the past; an inward struggle with no winners.
Carol and I had also provisionally agreed to divorce, although we both seemed reluctant to take practical steps towards it. We had never recovered the romance of those years before the interloper appeared, and had gradually replaced love, friendship and trust with the soft cement of parenthood, financial partnership and inertia. Most of the time we rubbed along together, but we were both sensitive to anything that reminded us of the year we separated, and the ugly issues which were then exposed forever. Relationships seem to thrive on a mutual ignorance (or disregard) of each other's weaknesses, and this was no longer the case for us, as we fenced and boxed through the days, strangely uneasy in our nearness, like familiar strangers.
We were basically very different in our outlooks now, with my wife becoming a fully paid up consumerist, while I maintained an interest in 'down shifting' and a simpler lifestyle. She was theatrically sociable to gain supportive friends, while I was studiously anti-social to preserve independence and fleeting quietude. She was a happy-clappy born again Christian buying a stairway to heaven, and I was an inveterate cynic critiquing the world with monotonous grumpy old man intensity. We quarrelled incessantly yet avoided one another where possible, and when we agreed to approach the solicitors one day, we probably knew we wouldn't the next. Family visits to stately homes alternated with personal visits to estate agents, while heated exchanges vied with electrical silences to see which could have the more stressful effect. My wife spoke more to the guinea pigs than me, and I thanked them for the distraction. The only thing that remained of our hippy heydays, was a split cane rubbish basket next to the toilet.
Still, continuing romance had its price too and I cheered myself up by remembering the man who told his wife to excrete daily in the public lavatories rather than the domestic loo, because her bathroom activities were spoiling his idyllic view of sex.
"Morning" I said, when I arrived downstairs.
"Hi" said two out of the three present.
"Mum's going to take us to see 'The Three Tenors' tonight" said my daughter.
"Oh, we're not that poor" I quipped. "I've already got four twenties and a fiver in my wallet, if you want to see them."
"And I'm doing a presentation at school today".
"Yes, a presentation on 'what it's like to be a child in the 21st century'."
"But I thought everybody was an expert on that these days. Surely we don't need any further explanation. Ha ha ... ha ... er..."
I shook the debris out of the long-suffering toaster, took a lung full of lingering smoke, noted that we'd had cabbage the previous evening, and watched the guinea pigs watching me from their luxury winter cage. Seeing some bills hiding behind the ornamental lighthouse, I involuntarily reviewed the household budget which was written in red ink and permanently stapled to the back of my mind. We weren't heavily in debt by any means, but we had a steadily growing overdraft and I was having to run faster and faster on the overtime treadmill, with cramp setting in. I was happy enough with our detached house, black second hand sporty hatchback with pop up headlights, pine furniture, basic computer and weekends away. But Carol wanted a third child, foreign holidays, bulging wardrobes and state of the art gismos at every turn in the house. I counselled restraint, and she ordered store credit cards and mail order catalogues. I avoided shopping centres like the plague, and she treated them as blessed havens of modernity.
This led to extra shifts and plenty of night duties, and for a while I coped well while many of my colleagues just reported sick and ordered 'The Oxford Medical Encyclopaedia' to research their excuses. But then the poor quality interrupted sleep began to wear me down, my chronic sinus problems got worse and I started picking up colds and stomach upsets. I contracted a chest infection and had my first time off work for three years, coughing up bottled fruit phlegm and taking antibiotic bombers, while Carol accused me of malingering and went to see one of my workmates who'd been off for four months with a 'backache' of uncertain origins. I'd never really pulled clear of that, and for two weeks I'd been waiting in freezing school yards, taking the kids to Beavers, Brownies, Scottish dancing and piano lessons in a daze of vagueness, irritability and febrile distraction. One night, I'd even turned back to philosophy for guidance, only to find that postmodernists were now as certain of uncertainty as I was.
In a whole life, we don't understand a single moment.
An Apocryphal Story:
The Future of Madness
Tarp was always a bit headstrong and self-centred, but the impact of school left him in no doubt that the ordinary conventions of life were not for him. He regularly played truant, and was often seen hanging around kiddies play equipment in parks, or listening to rock and roll in the public library. Nevertheless, his egalitarian schoolteachers were quite happy to award him his 12-plus examination (even though his scores plumbed new minima), just to make sure he didn't feel a failure and to give him every possible chance in life. So, at 16 he left the local Grammar with ten (grade 1) 'O' levels, masses of confidence and oceans of self-belief; as well as a noticeable inability to read, write or talk coherently.
While his contemporaries started work, or began A level courses, he opted instead for sitting at home watching 'Rag, Tag and Bobtail' on his mum's telly, or sniffing old balls of plasticine, to see if he could get high. He told the neighbours that he wasn't interested in work, and that he expected to be paid by the government for doing exactly what he wanted for the next fifty years, because that was his basic human right. In the early hours, he was usually seen with a tin of gloss paint and a 4" brush, embellishing the nearby police station with union jacks and pictures of genitalia. The police sometimes came out and had a quiet word, but it was "only natural" for lads to behave that way - what else could young people do? It was 1964 after all.
At the age of 20, he put his football kit on every morning and played with his hoop and stick or marbles in the back alley until lunch was ready, after which he would ride his little red tricycle on the pavements into town, where he would shoplift and swagger. The local university heard about his maverick behaviour and soon identified it as a worthy expression of 'inarticulate social critique'; later offering him an honorary place on their sociology degree course. He refused in fine four-letter fashion, but was less pleased a year later, when his mother died.
Although he didn't bother going to the funeral, he soon noticed her absence by the proliferation of dust and bills in the house, as well as his own unaccountable malnutrition. Passing the big hospital on his roller skates one day, he had a flash of inspiration, and decided to go in and ask for help. The bearded doctor welcomed him onto the couch with open arms, and then began a detailed, trail-blazing psychiatric assessment. At the end of it, he said:
"So, you say you're "dyslergic" to work and responsibility, Tarp?"
"Fucking right, I do."
"Well, this is what we call a 'neologism' in our business. It means that you are creating new words as part of your delusion about life."
"Whatever you say, Doc, as long as I can stay in here for a bit."
"Yes, you can certainly stay. In fact you can stay indefinitely."
"Fucking brilliant – cheers mate!"
With that, Tarp was shown to the bed he would sleep in for the next twenty-five years, while the psychiatrist massaged a braless bust of Sigmund Freud and carefully placed a piece of pink water-marked paper on his leather topped desk. A man born before his time, and a regular contributor to the 'Lancet', he wrote:
Responsibility phobia: the first case in a modern epidemic?
Yes (he thought) the world is going into reverse. Good old Tarp.
"Time to go!"
So, we piled into the car still chewing our bacon gristle, shuddered over the traffic calming humps and joined the other grey-faced parents sitting uncomfortably at the semi-permanent temporary traffic lights on both sides of a big deserted hole. All around us there were children in blue, green and red uniforms traipsing along with dull bestial looks and vast rucksacks stuffed with key stage hieroglyphics, while frothing apoplectics mouthed obscenities at the side roads; their ways barred by stone age rivals. Thirty minutes and two miles later we were at the school, where the usual collection of thick-skinned narcissists were parked once again on zigzag lines in front of the gates, their eyes glinting with gunslinger venom at my well-practiced slow motion ironic applause, while a procession of cold, scantily clad young mothers sashayed by, modelling their latest catalogue purchases. It was here that Carol smiled for the first time today, as she blended seamlessly with the crowd, flicked a switch, and started chattering gaily.
Sidling through a tight opening in the twelve-foot high mesh fence which had been erected to discourage some local 'high spirited young men', we entered the school yard and Carol curtsied in the direction of a smirking parent-governor who was thrilling his twittering fan club with tales of valiant deeds down at the rugby club where he wore hipster shorts. I openly stifled a yawn, said farewell to the disappearing children and retired to the car, where I played Jimi Hendrix on the dusty stereo and waited for my wife to return.
"That was rude " she said, apparently referring to my lack of hero worship for the parent-governor.
"Agreeably so" I remarked with undisguised satisfaction.
"At least he knows how to put a tie on" she taunted.
"It's just a pity it wasn't three inches tighter" I rejoined.
To think that many years ago I used to give Carol her breakfast in bed on Sundays (although it was later revealed that she preferred it on a plate like everyone else).
We spent the rest of the journey in strained silence, as cars veered towards us like heat-seeking missiles, and the sky got another shade darker. For the first time in two years the car radio mysteriously crackled into life, and somebody commented:
"A man recently killed his wife for her life assurance, only to discover that she had already cashed it in to spend on her lover."
I couldn't help noticing that Carol's eyes were like the cross hairs on the sights of a sniper's rifle, but I was by now absolutely immune to any amount of sulking, and my mind wandered, not for the first time, into a reverie of paranoid self-analysis. I was getting old, and all around me deceit, excess and spin seemed to be turning mockingly orthodox, while my own values and beliefs lay buried under an avalanche of 21st. century sleaze.
Yes, 'sleaze' was just the right word for it.
When I first started working at the unit, it was only a degenerate minority who regularly used their elephant hides and mercenary natures to exploit the system, but now a majority of staff had joined the bandwagon and the protesting few could only stand by as managers and abusers cutely turned the tables. Staff members who regularly drew attention to the excesses and deficiencies were at first cleverly humoured and given empty promises, but then gradually marginalized by counterattacking challenges, jokes about their 'obsessions', and ostracising acts. I had now almost entered this final phase, and I could feel the crowded ranks closing against me, as my naïve advocacy on behalf of the taxpayer was routinely reviled by the collusive 'closed shop'. Farce, travesty and collective delusion had become so deep-seated in our local psychiatric services, there was literally nobody left to complain to.
Neither could my qualifications help me, because all the talk of higher education in nursing had simply led to increased conflict between the graduate nurse and the non-graduate manager. Even gaining a Ph.D. in my spare time hadn't impressed my masters, who simply procrastinated a lot and then shifted their studied indifference to a puzzled background resentment. In a working world that was defined by religious devotion to bureaucracy and the organisational status quo, my education had isolated me in very much the same way as my principles. I was called 'Doc' by my powerless friends, and asked to collect stool samples by my powerful enemies.
"You don't seem to think much of our management skills, Steven?" said one.
"Well, I know one manager who can render the first line of 'Old Man River' as a continuous belch, but apart from that ... No." I replied.
'Patient rights' on the unit had also set me apart from my more enlightened colleagues, who had joined with the massed bands of relatives, professional advocates, inspectors, consumer groups, public relations managers and health trust solicitors to ensure that people with even the most dubious 'mental disorders' were insulated from the irksome risks and obligations of life like a protected species. I perceived work as the first therapy, not the final illusive goal, and could not accept that maximising rights whilst minimising responsibilities could possibly provide successful rehabilitation within a society allegedly based on 'give and take' principles.
This had recently brought me into conflict with one irate relative who frequently berated staff for failing to improve the condition of her brother, but at the same time banned us from exerting the slightest pressure on him to even get up in the morning. I had pointed out the self-contradiction of this position, and asked her if she would like to assume responsibility for his care herself, if our approach was so clearly deficient.
"No I bloody wouldn't!" she squawked "That's your job! What do you think we pay our taxes for?"
I then pointed out that she had been on income support and other benefits herself since leaving school, so her contribution to the taxation fund was also somewhat questionable.
"What!! You bloody cheeky devil! My life's absolutely impossible and now you're making it even more difficult!"
"Could the Job Centre provide a solution" I had recklessly continued.
This naturally landed me in hot water with management and I now had a disciplinary 'investigation' hanging over my head, with a guaranteed Judge Jeffries outcome. In a world held to ransom by career victims, ambulance followers and politically correct officialdom, my fate was hermetically sealed. I was marooned in a deviant organisation held together by shirkers, bureaucrats and drones, making my own deviant status absolutely inevitable; either by adaptation to the prevailing deviant culture (he's now like us), or by disaffection from the prevailing culture and resultant labelling (he's deviant because he's not like us). I was truly in the jaws of a 'vice'.
Yes, my old mum had the greatest difficulty understanding prize-winning books by "Simon Rusty", but her most dogmatic opinions now stood proudly above the sweeping sickness of fascist-liberalism; a disease which ate into our country, like the crab.
The car careered on through the dismal streets, stampeding cocky sixth formers into the gutters as their gang mentality and instilled insolence gave way for the first time to primordial fear. Carol defended their youthful exuberance and misunderstood charms, while I prosecuted their arrogant disrespect and herd instincts, and we sped towards her workplace as two enemies in the same tank. She left the car without a word, clicked her neck like Mike Tyson going into the first round of a championship bout, and prepared her public self for a captive audience of blue-collar admirers.
"Isn't that the bloke who gave you a lift home the other night?" I said, nodding towards a smart, urbane young man in the well-cut linen jacket of a solicitor on holiday.
"Yes" she cooed, swivelling her eyes between his chinos and my battle-scarred jeans, and back again.
"He's the factory van driver isn't he?" I commented.
"So what?" she snapped, and marched off.
Arriving back home, I observed a police car outside our house and an irate looking troglodyte stomping up and down the street as though he owned it. Two policemen and the troglodyte converged on me when I parked in the driveway, and I soon deduced that all was not well. I recalled the previous evening when I had disturbed two hooded youths wandering about our garden with spray canisters, and knew instantly that I had somehow offended their delicate sensibilities, exposing me to the full weight of the law. They had certainly looked rather surprised when their spotty behinds were been assisted up the street with the parting message:
"You are a pair of completely useless tossers going nowhere in life, and if I catch you down here again I'm going to deliver you back to your brain-dead parents in meat chunks."
Clearly, the troglodyte was one of the brain-dead parents, and now he danced in front of me, beating his chest and snorting like a gorilla about to charge, while I could only stare with forensic interest at his bulging neck.
"You assaulted my boy last night, and now you're in real trouble pal!"
"Would that be the hooded vandal boy with the graffiti paint?" I enquired.
"That's nothing to do with it pal! He was just having a laugh and you had no right attacking him!"
"You're keen on peoples' rights are you? How about mine?"
"Oi! Watch yourself smart arse. My lad's just a bit legally challenged that's all. Any more of your prejudice and I'll give you a smack!"
"It's the little parasites with the aerosols that should have been given the smacks you repulsive oaf" I replied "And could you please refrain from power washing my glasses with your rank spittle?"
At this point the rabid ape launched himself across the driveway with a primeval roar which brought the neighbours to their windows like iron filings to a magnet, but the constables grasped him before his large hirsute fists could do any damage and I continued to smile amiably as his red face swung in front of me like a sun in nova.
"You're going to be paying me and my lad compensation!" he spat.
"Would you like your blood pressure taking?" I asked in way of reconciliation.
The policemen eventually interrupted his robust reply and persuaded him to go home, but only after he had received their reassurance that I was going to be interviewed down at the station. An hour and a half later I returned home wondering if a prosecution would follow, while two hooded forms scuttled about at the top of the street, grinning delightedly at my brake lights.
"The whole count ... country is wet" said a stuttering, liberal weather forecaster.
The lunatics had not only taken over the asylum, they had taken over the other institutions of society too, and I dropped onto the sofa as if a giant boot was relentlessly stamping me into the bloody dust. Our T.V. spluttered into life, and I watched the continuous flow of inane adverts, smirking contestants on multi-coloured quiz shows, drunken louts in Ibiza, chuckling adults in Disneyland and (on tape) mono-syllabic bald men in soap operas shouting for their next T.V. award. A world of toys, infantilism and futility bore down on me. Hard.
In urgent need of escape, I walked to the computer workstation and picked up a hardcopy of the cathartic, whistle-blowing book I'd been working on for three years ('Inside the Cuckoo Clock'). Like an episode of 'Casualty', the unrelenting horror nearly always cheered me up.
Especially this part.
The 'phone rang while I was switching the T.V. off. It was Kate – one of our many ex-nursing assistants.
But a special one.
This was 'kiss me' Kate, a wonderful flaxen-haired, 24-caret beauty with sapphire eyes, serpentine curves, Nordic directness, sugar, spice and all things nice.
"Hi Steve" she said "A few of us are meeting up at the 'Tar and Feathers' on Saturday night. Do you want to come along?"
"Yeah, why not" I replied casually, my mind extrapolating wildly.
"Great. You could bring a bottle back to my place afterwards too, if you like."
"I'll do that. Thanks a lot."
"See you then. 8 o'clock at the Tar and Feathers."
I was already in the pub, cutting an elegant but mysterious figure in my Oswald Moseley black shirt, suede winkle-pickers and fashionable wrap-round sunglasses. I exuded an easy confidence as I strolled towards Kate and her perfectly irrelevant friends, whom she had invited merely as a cover for her assignation with me. She was dressed in an ivory-coloured silk blouse, black pencil skirt and sheer tights, with her legs crossed cleverly to exhibit two gorgeous thighs. We chatted amiably about a variety of profound subjects, laughed hilariously at each other's jokes, and exchanged beautifully synchronised non-verbal cues, before making independent excuses and adjourning to her flat for three hours of blissful sexual congress.
Naturally, our trysts would quickly become a passionate affaire, and we would often venture out from our love nest to dine in palatial surroundings, walk silently in Northumbria, or water-ski in the tropics. As an intellectual nymphomaniac, she would be my soul mate for eternity, and it would only remain for me to break the news to a sobbing, heartbroken Carol who would wisely hand over the children to me. They would naturally take this in their stride, live happy successful lives, and be more than pleased to wipe my bottom when the time eventually came.
But sometimes wishes can come true, I thought.