Looking Through the Windows of Madness
Copyright© 2011 by leovineknight
Llewelyn completed his last day at secondary modern school, leaving behind the old wooden entrance plaque with his initials burnt into it with a magnifying glass, the row of concrete bike slots that had buckled countless front wheels, and the little path down to the yard where he once pole-axed somebody with a clod of mud to the temple (in error). He walked through the clinker car park where he used to explore the workings of old Dinky toys by dropping bricks on them, alongside the railway line where oblong diesel trains had now replaced the puffing steam engines with fine brass names, past the branch line tunnel blocked by Dr. Beeching and down into the suburban gardens of home, with sweet peas, marigolds and red admiral butterflies on all sides. A late-middle-aged, balding man came limping towards him with his gabardine coat over his arm and a pair of beer bottle-bottom glasses glinting in the sun. The guillotine of cancer, heart attacks and strokes seemed a very long way off.
But it was there waiting.
"Hello" he said to the retired matron, who was gardening with her back to him.
"Good afternoon Llewelyn" she replied, without turning.
"Ah! Hello there" said somebody else, hurtling towards him from across the road like a scud missile. It was his mother's mortal enemy desperately wanting some inside information on how badly off they were this week.
"'Hello" said Llewelyn, shooting through the front door and bolting it.
"Nice to see you" she warbled through the letterbox. "Tell your mother I'm thinking about her."
"She had such a nice little home-made coat on this morning."
"f$%k off" he thought.
Panting on the other side of door like a fugitive, he then went into the kitchen, got a jammy dodger and took stock. He was glad enough to leave school, but his future was indistinct, and he hadn't even arranged anything for the holidays with his school friends again, in case they said no. He would probably hang around their neighbourhoods in the hope of an incidental meeting, but in the mean time he would practice his bowling along the side path using the bin as stumps, read his library books (currently 'The Lost World') and go down to the cricket ground where he spent his time selling cushions and collecting autographs.
This kept him fairly busy, but he had just enough time left over to experiment with a right-hand side hair parting and brilliantine, although this made him look like a young Adolf Hitler without the moustache; so he did the wise thing and tried growing a moustache as well. In the event, his six weeks holiday passed very quickly and he soon reached the day when he left the house resplendent in his gravy-stained tie and darned sports jacket for his first day of 'O' levels at the Technical College. It was about two miles away, and he had intended to catch the bus en route, but when he saw a lengthy queue of cavorting baboons who obviously had the same destination, he got cold feet and walked instead. This made him slightly late, and meant that he had to endure the heart-pounding anticipatory stress of knocking on a variety of strange closed doors before he eventually found the correct room, finally passing through a silent, staring multitude in search of a spare seat.
"What's your name?" said the lecturer.
"Llewelyn --, sir" he replied.
"Are you sure you're in the right place?" the lecturer asked cockily.
"This is the town brothel, is it not?" Llewelyn retorted.
He then grinned inanely at the lecturer's white face and his unresponsive peers, hoping that they couldn't smell the sweat generated by his incubator jacket, long walk and molten embarrassment. It was just dawning on him how incredibly gauche, nervous and shy he was in strange circumstances, and how easily he responded to pressure with acerbic sarcasm. He had been released from the fairly uniform and unselfconscious world of a boys' school in the 1960's, into this challenging pre-adult world of a further education college, and he was drowning like a kitten in a sack. His haircuts invariably made him look like a village idiot and his choice of clothes was decidedly pre-war, while his short neck and tall collars ensured that periscopes, rather than ties, were necessary accoutrements. The new faces, co-educational novelty and harder work, all threw up tremendous adaptation problems, and he soon discovered how incredibly difficult it was for certain people to be normal.
He also found out that self-confidence did not always flow from knowledge and achievement - it was more frequently the product of blissful ignorance. Knowledge made you aware of your weaknesses, as well as your strengths, while ignorance could sustain your vanity forever.
For Llewelyn, it was the psychedelic escapism of 1968 and 1969 which showed him a glimmer of hope. He was not an obvious revolutionary, with his basin haircut, Michael Caine glasses and podgy face, yet the seeds of personal revolt had been carefully sewn and consistently cultivated. He desperately needed an identity beyond the definitions imposed by home and college, so he greedily explored the alternative worlds of Sonny Barger, flower power and underground music, in the hope that these would provide a Holy Grail solution. He was too much of a wimp to use L.S.D. immediately, but by 1969 he had purchased an 80 c.c. Yamaha motorbike and bought his first 'Black Sabbath' L.P., demonstrating clearly to the six people on the planet who may have been interested that his personal rebellion had begun. The voting age had been reduced to 18, the first man landed on the moon, and he was ready for take off.
Initially, their motorbike club was laughably eclectic, with both scooterists and bikers joining forces to circulate around town and occasionally pose outside the chip shop, but by the time Llewelyn had left college the gang had seriously powerful machines, leather jackets, and denim waistcoats with their gang name on the back. They had all-night parties, big 'runs' to Wales and the Lakes, their first serious sexual experiences and cheap thrills as they rode en masse through the cobbled squares of quiet towns with gaping locals. Llewelyn met a few genuine characters during these years, including the youth who was so greedy he licked out chip bags, and the chap who could recycle a cup of tea up through his nose and back into the cup. There were also the really tough guys who drank their own urine in public toilets to show 'class' and the man who insisted on wearing an anorak instead of a leather jacket – even though this blew up like a balloon when he was riding, and led to his nickname 'armchair'. But all this was nothing compared to the top man in the local Hell's Angels chapter who reputedly ate dog shit.
Indeed, for all their bravado, they were still 'weekend' deviants, who conscientiously returned to their offices and apprenticeships on Monday morning and shrank into the background when gangs of tattooed desperados from the city rode to the coast. Compared to these knife-wielding anarchists with hairy shoulders and huge beer guts, they were just a bunch of second division runts with delusions of grandeur. Not quite as deluded as the local bloke who went around in full racing leathers and a helmet on his pushbike, but deluded nonetheless. There was certainly a wonderful feeling of camaraderie at times, but they were basically frauds and impostors, trying to pretend their adolescent antics were leading to a profound counter-cultural end.
After a few years subtle changes appeared in the dynamics of the group and they started 'racing' rather than riding, and arguing rather than laughing. One night during a party somebody pissed in Llewelyn's petrol tank, and someone else nearly died when they were pushed into a swimming pool while drunk. Things were due to change again.
The sine wave of love and hate.
Mad Mexican Bandits
In the 1970's, every cowboy film (or series) seemed to have a resident mad Mexican.
"Ha! Ha! Ha!. You are my special friend gringo" the Mexican would laugh "And tomorrow I shoot your balls off."
Llewelyn knew exactly how the gringo felt, because one of his friends was a bit like that. He was a good chess player, but whenever he started losing he would embark on a whole series of distracting manoeuvres, including cracking his knuckles, humming inane tunes loudly, and releasing his six pet budgerigars into the room, where they would proceed to chirp, fly and crap. If all else failed, he would somehow contrive to nudge the board onto the floor while he was dunking his ginger biscuits. He had absolutely no shame.
Like some people haven't.
One day Llewelyn left his prized racing bike in his friend's garden shed, and when he returned he found that the bike had been burnt to a crisp (along with the shed itself and half the garden). A rubbish fire had got out of hand his friend announced apologetically, and there was absolutely nothing he could have done about it. It was a year later, when Llewelyn saw his friend coaxing their family cat into the oven, that he could finally see the truth.
Llewelyn had left the 'tech' in 1970 with a hand full of 'O' levels, joining the local office of an insurance company and then transferring to their regional office two years later. This represented a fundamental conflict, of course, between the financial necessities of life (working in the office), and his anti-establishment self-imagery (riding with the bikers); a battle which was fought on many levels. His employers knew that he had a motorbike, and they noted his long side burns, collar length hair, shiny-elbowed suit and seditious sense of humour. This meant that perfumed prats with kipper ties and smug smiles could amble in ten minutes late and spend another five discussing their orange Morris 1800's with the Chief Clerk, while Llewelyn was publicly flogged for being two minutes late and reminding the Chief Clerk that they were all on flexitime anyway. He slowly dug his own grave, but he was pleased that he was finding his voice at last; even daring to criticise the jailers around him.
At home, the situation had reached crisis point, with his middle-aged mum developing total hypochondria and settling for a life on state benefits. There were endless references to multiple chronic illnesses, constant affected coughs and groans, long periods of ossification in the fireside chair, and apoplectic attacks if this was ever questioned. Rapid walking round the back of the house would be replaced with a grimacing snail's pace at the front, coughs and sighs would multiply and grow in volume as the front door was answered, and an arthritic inability to hold a pen would be contradicted by five page vitriolic letters of abuse to the doctor's surgery and welfare agencies. At the same time, nobody else had an illness worth mentioning.
"You'll get this house when I'm dead" she sobbed in the morning. "It won't be long now".
"I want you out! Out! Out! You bloody good-for-nothing! You're no son of mine!" by the evening.
From that time onwards Llewelyn used a healthy scepticism in his dealings with the world, because he realised just how cleverly another person could rationalise their actions, 'spin' their attacks, and fool some of the people all of the time. Even if it meant convincing themselves of blatant untruths, ignoring counter-evidence for years, losing all self-respect and bringing themselves to their knees; the easy option was sometimes just too much of a temptation. As he later realised in his professional life, subconscious evasion of responsibility was a very widespread phenomenon indeed.
He'd been living in a flat since 1971, but when he returned to his hometown to visit friends his mother would sometimes put him up, and this would inevitably end with a cataclysmic row and his ejection from the house. He would then crawl round to see one of his long suffering pals and beg for a night's lodgings, losing quite a number of friends in the process. Indeed, it was one of his most savage learning experiences to discover that many of them secretly reviled him for being 'intellectual' (i.e. he had an office job), and abandoning his mother in her 'hour' of need. An easy mistake to make, he supposed, for people who had enjoyed the security of a stable family all their lives and had no experience of long-term neurosis. They couldn't see that his callousness had at least kept him sane, that there were many sides to every story, and that an hour of need could sometimes stretch to forty years.
Shortly after Britain joined the E.E.C. (1973), his fading love affair with motorcycles ended in divorce, as he found himself rolling down the road at 60 m.p.h. in a t-shirt, with his flesh mixing into the tarmac. He got away with a broken collar bone and deep abrasions, but the wounds were still bleeding three weeks later, and he'd had enough. His mother visited him in hospital, but minutes after her arrival she fainted, ending up in a bed next to Llewelyn with the Cheshire cat smile of a well-practised martyr. He took stock of his life while he was recovering, returned briefly to the civil service (where he was then working as a clerk), and handed in his notice.
He really couldn't imagine himself spending his entire working life with grey soulless managers admonishing gossiping staff for petty bureaucratic crimes. For him, it was death by a thousand cuts, and with all due respect to everybody, he wanted 'out' yesterday. He now needed something which rose above all this dog-eat-dog stuff, something which was more secure, reliable and objective. He wanted to enter the domain of fundamental explanations, overarching knowledge, philosophical insight, artistic merit, quads and ivory towers, academic qualifications and regular intoxication. In short, he wanted to solve his problems by becoming a student.
So, he ran towards explanations, and away from understanding, not thinking for a moment about the past.
The past that imprisons the future.
It was nearly Christmas, and the sickness calls were coming in with greater frequency than the disingenuous inter-departmental greetings cards. In the vain hope of assistance, I thought I should inform Richard that the qualified nurse who was supposed to be on duty in an hour - now wasn't. I trudged to our leader's door, knocked and entered, just in time to see him turn off his personal T.V. set and move a large heap of official documents to the centre of the desk. Spluttering a little, he commented:
"A-a-ah, what a Godsend Ceefax is, Steven. An absolute must for all managers. I was just checking the weather forecast and traffic congestion pages to help the inspectors plan their return journey. Jolly good, eh?"
Yes, the inspectors were here again and Richard's statement was certainly sycophantic enough to be true, but somehow his bright red face, perspiring top lip and bulging half-zipped flies told a different story.
"Oh, I thought I may have caught you in flagrante, Richard."
"Hum ... humph ... I certainly don't know any lady of that name, Steven. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't do it in the office."
I made a mental note to investigate further when he was out of the room, and told him about the late sick call.
"Sick again eh? Well, he's had a really tough time recently. Poor weather on his holiday, investments only yielding 5%, and now he has to look after his own children because the child minder's away – we must give him all the support we can."
"He's actually off with diarrhoea."
"Hum ... hum. Well, he does have a tendency to stomach problems."
"He also has a chronically bad back, recurrent gout, frequent migraines, and long term depression which is resistive to all known medication." I pointed out.
"Hum ... hum. Well, nevertheless we must give all the professional support we can. Ring around and see if anybody else is available."
"It seems like I've got no choice."
"Yes ... yes ... and don't worry so much, Steven. I've always got things well in hand. You know that."
"True, true" I agreed.
Returning to the main office, I couldn't help wondering for the hundredth time why the Trust was so gullible with staff sickness time. Up and down the country, millions of pounds were being spent on incapacitated nurses sitting at home, and further millions were being spent on replacing them with bank and agency nurses. In a situation where money was in short supply for essential equipment, new wards, medication and reducing waiting lists, it was incredible how the government and managers would dole out public finances with such mindless profligacy.
Yes, the ludicrousness of our professional lives had now reached critical mass, and managers were even sending boxes of chocolates to people on sick leave to make absolutely sure that the absentees couldn't accuse their employers of being 'uncaring'. A number of staff on long-term sick leave had complained that they felt 'left out' and abandoned in their 'time of need', leading to a sudden wave of paranoia amongst managers who felt vulnerable to disciplinary proceedings if they didn't demonstrate how highly they valued their invisible workforce. Predictably, some of these absentees then began to complain that management were becoming too intrusive, and that they should not 'harass' staff while they were suffering at home.
"Buzzzzz" went the doorbell, interrupting my reverie.
"I've just come to check there aren't any ligature points in the unit" said a yellow-coloured man with large identity badge worn medallion style on a gold chain.
"Okay, that's fine" I said, feeling my own throat constrict a little.
"Excuse me a minute, I'll have to answer the door again."
"Okay boss, I'll see you later."
"I've just come to undertake an environmental risk assessment and option analysis" said a grey-coloured man with rheumy eyes, clipboard and sad moustache.
"Be my guest" I said.