The team are concerned about him again. There have been warning signs.
Last week, according to a bank statement I found, he withdrew his last £122 and closed down his account. Two days after that he called his adopted sister, who he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years, to apologise for ‘everything that happened when they were children’. Then on Wednesday, completely out of the blue, he matter-of-factly informed me that it was a myth that injecting air into a vein would kill you, and that what usually happens when someone takes a bath with a toaster is that the fuse simply blows. Equally as worrying are the notes from last week’s psychiatric assessment. Paragraph three circled in red pen. Certain words and phrases highlighted in yellow: Peter appears less anxious; Peter seems well-balanced.
This isn’t quite as positive as it might sound. Clients often appear like this shortly before ending it all. Suddenly at peace with the world, no longer in turmoil, they know where they’re going and feel in control of when they’ll get there. Which is comforting for them. And unusual. For once they get to say when things happen. They draw the timeline.
Five three-hour visits a week are what I make here. I’m his part-time key worker. We cook. We watch TV. Now and again we take a short walk. That, in total, is only fifteen relatively safe hours out of the one hundred and sixty eight that make up Monday to Sunday. A small percentage. All that time on his hands. All those unattended moments in which he could take pills, gas or hang himself, open up veins in the bath, stick wet fingers in a light socket, or go to bed with a plastic bag over his head, an elastic band securing it around his throat. And then, of course, there’s the great outdoors to go at. Bridges and cliffs to leap from. Cars, trains, buses to step in front of. Lakes, rivers, the sea to drown in. He could even make a public menace of himself, wave a toy gun at the police, go out with a bang and a front-page obituary.
Something tells me, though, that if he succeeds this time, the act itself will be more creative, some method outside my thinking. Whatever he does dream up, I just hope I’m not the one who finds him. I like him, I do, but I don’t need that at the moment; judging by the letter I received two days ago it seems he’s already got me into enough trouble as it is.
It was anonymous and brief. Black pen on beige paper: I now know who you are and where you live.
I have a pretty good idea who sent it and should probably call the police. But that would only make things worse. That’s how the whole thing started in the first place.
The incident report describes how last month, or more specifically... on April 2nd at 9.53a.m, at the junction of Herne Hill road/Croxted road... Pete and I were heading over the zebra crossing, intending to head into Brockwell park.
We didn’t get there. Because for no good reason, Pete suddenly decided to lie face down in the road (this was the start of his decline and things have been getting steadily worse day by day). Smiling to himself, eyes closed and moaning with pleasure, he nuzzled his cheek against the tarmac as though it were a freshly washed pillowcase. Traffic was already backing up as far as I could see – the road is busy at that time in the morning because of a nearby primary school – and at the front of the queue was a man in a silver van.
I waved an apology to him – he was around my age with spiky blonde hair and a skull-like face – but he was clearly not in the mood to be held up. A young black woman who was passing by crossed over to ask if everything was okay, and she got down on her knees to talk to Pete. “Look at the weather, darling,” she said to him. “Wouldn’t you rather be in the park than lying in the middle of a dirty road?” At this point silver van man honked his horn and raised his hands, but the woman pulled a face and raised hers in return, mocking him for his impatience. He didn’t like this, didn’t like it at all, and he leaned out of the window and shouted that we should get a fucking move on. Pete immediately got to his feet and obligingly walked to the kerb. Silver van man slipped into gear, and as he pulled away he threw something at the woman, which hit her on the back.
As it turned out, it was only balled up chips in greasy paper, the remains of the man’s lunch from who knows when. The woman simply laughed the whole thing off and said she felt sorry for men like that.
I couldn’t let it go though. It stayed with me all day. And that evening I reported what had happened to the police.
They said I’d done the right thing. Yes, it was only chips, but it could just as easily have been something else. Two weeks later they called to say they’d traced the van and questioned the driver, who claimed to have done no such thing. Nevertheless he’d been charged and would be appearing before a magistrate.
By then I’d begun to see how ridiculous the whole thing seemed. I pictured people in court, particularly the jury, sniggering and shaking their heads as I gave evidence from behind a screen. Not that it would make much difference. Silver van man had already been given my name. Apparently it’s normal procedure for it to appear on the witness statement. Not the address or any other details, just the name.
No words of comfort or support are to be found at home. According to Sarah, I have only myself to blame. Last night, in the middle of what she was keen to point out was a disagreement and not an argument, she said that silver van man probably traced my whereabouts through a social networking site.
“It makes no difference that you don’t do Facebook,” she shrugged. “Friends of friends of friends could have put stuff up on there about you. It happens to me all the time. I regularly see photos of myself that I can’t even remember having posed for. My advice? Don’t go fighting battles for people who haven’t asked you to and you’ll find life a lot simpler, trust me.”
We went back to watching a documentary about Vermeer – who, it turns out, painted all those tranquil interiors – Woman Reading a Letter at a Window, Girl with Pearl Earring etc – because his own home life was so chaotic. “Yes,” I joked. “I know that feeling.” Which Sarah seemed to find wildly amusing. “Chaos?” she said. “You? You don’t know the meaning of the word. You’ve lived too safe a life, paddling in the shallow end of your own but diving straight in the deep end of everyone else’s. Try focusing on what’s closer to home for once. Try that and see what happens.”
I lean back against the cooker and yawn loudly into my hand. Pete shuffles by, his arms loaded up with damp washing.
“Sorry,” I say. “Slept badly.”
“You’ll be free to go soon.”
I hold up my cup. “Refill?”
I flick the kettle on and open the door of the wall cupboard. It’s a sad affair. Bottom shelf: two rows of white Ikea mugs and a box of Typhoo. Middle: a tin of custard powder and some loose black peppercorns. Top: empty, unused. Pete isn’t a tall man.
I amble over to the back door and watch him peg his pink shirts out on the line. “We should start cooking soon.”
He stoops to pick up a sock. “Two minutes.”
“I’ll make a start with the onion.”
“What are you making?”
“We are making shepherd’s pie.”
The two of us have an odd, imbalanced relationship. I know a lot about him. He knows next to nothing about me. He doesn’t know, for example, that I once worked as a carpenter, or that I used to smoke – though nothing to match his terrifying intake. He’s never seen any of my paintings, doesn’t know that one of them won a national competition and hung for a while in the Royal Academy. He isn’t aware that I’ve been hospitalised only twice in my life – the first time in this country, the second time in India. He doesn’t know that Sarah’s thirty-one year old sister Clare is dying of cancer in a hospice in Hampstead, or that my mother died four months ago of the same illness. None of this will ever come up in conversation over tea and biscuits. My life will remain a mystery to him. Professional boundaries say that’s the way it has to be.
Most of what I know about him I’ve read rather than heard. There are his case notes – two sides of A4, a list of key events that have contributed to the decline in his mental health. And then there’s the suicide handout, a far more interesting self-penned account of his last psychotic episode.
Pete was born with a rare disorder called exstrophy – a severe deformity of the genitals, so severe that some male cases are sexually re-assigned at birth. He wasn’t; he was put up for adoption instead. The couple who took him on already had a daughter but couldn’t seem to get pregnant again. He was two when he moved in with them, and he’s described those early years as the only happy ones he ever had. Just before his ninth birthday his mother was killed in a car crash. He saw it all. The whole family was in the car.
That’s enough for anyone. But it gets worse.
He grew up (sort of) and when he was sixteen his father died of a heart attack. Alone in the world suddenly – his sister had by this time moved abroad – he met a woman called Pat and quickly married her, despite his sexual inadequacies. He soon discovered that Pat had her own problems, one of them alcoholism. Six weeks into their shambles of a marriage he caught her in bed with someone else. Not long after that she threw herself from the balcony of their eighth story flat in Bermondsey. Pete was sectioned two days later and spent his longest spell to date in psychiatric care.
Which is how he met his second wife, Iris.
Now, I’m all for the story of how you meet someone being an interesting one. The story can be your base coat, your primer – it’s what the whole picture can hang on. There are limits, though, surely (I mean, longevity does seem pretty unlikely for a couple who’ve both recently attempted suicide).
Surprisingly, Pete and Iris’ marriage lasted for nine years but broke down a year ago when Iris met another man, John, her present husband.
Over the last six months Pete’s been an outpatient at the Maudesley hospital in Camberwell. He’s recently had a course of Electroconvulsive Therapy, and although it seems to have worked to some degree, he claims it’s erased certain events from his memory, left him hearing occasional whispering voices – one male, one female – and gifted him with psychic powers.
Tea made, I help him hang out the rest of the washing. He uses only the yellow pegs so I introduce a few blues and purples to make things interesting. “Colour can resurrect a dead day,” I tell him.
“Not this one.”
Back in the kitchen, ten minutes later, I suggest the medium-sized frying pan.
After wiping it out with kitchen roll, Pete sets it gently on the hob.
“Olive oil,” I suggest.
He shakes his head. “I saw on TV that you shouldn’t use it for cooking. It gives you cancer if you heat it up.” He heads over to the fridge. “Keep an eye on the pan. It’s new.” He takes out the mince and closes the fridge door. But then he just stands there, the tray hanging from his hand, eyes in a sidelong glance, head cocked as if listening to someone whispering in his ear.
This kind of thing. Invisible presences. Muttered conversations with ghosts. Post-it notes on the fridge to friends and family members long since dead. This is what I find interesting about him (not to mention the eerie connection between our mothers, which I still haven’t told him about, and probably never will). He isn’t mad (when on medication), not in the traditional sense of the word. He never cut off one of his own hands in a public library or ran around the streets half-naked, ranting and eating food from bins. He never straddled a police officer and stabbed him repeatedly with a kitchen knife through his bulletproof vest. He doesn’t hang his wet washing on live cables he’s torn from the ceiling or collect cigarette butts and rotting fruit in catering size coffee tins. His ‘indications’ are subtle. You have to be on the lookout for them.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s had his moments, and he’d be the first to admit it. Now and again, when we’re pottering about like this – cooking, opening post, just chatting – he’ll ask if I’ve taken a look at the suicide handout recently. “You should,” he’ll tell me. “You know, just to remind yourself how bad things can get. So you’re aware of what you’re dealing with.”
We recently had a conversation about our names. Mine is David Price. His is Peter Doran.
“Our initials would be the same if one of us reversed them,” he said excitedly.
When I told him my middle name was Andrew (his is Philip) he was devastated.
His new thing seems to be apples. There’s a definite apple thing going on at the moment. I’ll find an apple in a place where an apple shouldn’...