Circling The Plughole
It was his earliest memory: gazing up from his pram at continents of billowing white clouds sailing across an ocean of blue sky – all warm, safe and serene in that remote aeon of an afternoon, soaking up the sunshine as the world made slow sense.
While the comfortable cotton wool memories receded and the valium in his veins dissolved, Nero’s attention turned from the window to noticing a curling poster print of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow Blu-tacked to the wall behind the doctor. He stared into the foreground at the faceless hooded men trudging home with their dogs through skeletal trees, then to the distant skaters on frozen ponds. He imagined all their worries and wishes removed far into the past.
The duty psychiatrist gathered his papers and suggested he return to reception.
On his way, as his footsteps reverberated down the empty corridor, Nero was unable to recall just how long he’d been in that room, floating in a mental fog. His principal engagement with his surroundings had been a continual fascination with the doctor’s unruly nose hairs and the small clump of unshaven bristles under his left ear.
Arriving at the vaulted Victorian reception area, Nero was handed a Depression, Anxiety and Stress Test to fill in while he waited. He could smell boiled cabbage and hear the squeak of a food trolley a short distance away but out of view. He realised he was hungry, so staved it off for a while by successfully retrieving a half finished packet of mints from his jacket pocket, together with his mobile.
While checking for messages he popped a Polo in his mouth and pushed it around and around with his tongue. He stopped sucking.
Three missed calls, and two recorded messages. They were from Dixey.
Message 1, 09:27: “Nero where were you at 9 call me”.
“Shit, shit, shit!” hissed Nero, as he swallowed his partly dissolved mint.
Message 2, 10:13: “Dont piss me about nero!”
In the test, he ticked “Strongly Agree” to the statement – I found it difficult to calm down after something upset me.
At that moment, two casually dressed female psychiatric nurses, both in their early twenties, entered reception side by side, beaming practised reassuring smiles in his direction. They greeted him.
Nero stood up and approached them, racing past pleasantries with a cursory nod and smile.
“Did I have a bag with me when they brought me here last night; a leather satchel?” he asked urgently.
The nurses halted, appeared momentarily surprised and then looked at one another.
“There was that bag Doctor Joshi was going on about last night, wasn’t there?” said the short blonde one.
“Oh yeah,” confirmed the taller of the two, who introduced herself as Sarah and her co-worker as Jo, “She reckoned there was a couple of thousand in it at least; thought it was from drugs until she saw some paperwork; loans or something. We were all ready for a good night out, weren’t we!”
“Yeah, gonna get a limo booked.”
The pair leant back and simulated nightclub dance moves as they laughed.
“There was a laptop in there as well. So we had it all put in the safe,” added Jo, turning to Nero.
“So the money, it’s all there, yes?”
“Of course. Try not to worry.”
“Thank Christ for that!” exhaled Nero, bending to place both hands on his thighs and phewing.
Sarah glanced down at her notes. “So, are you Nigel Bain?”
He hesitated for a moment, reacting to the reminder of his now rarely used former first name, but then nodded to her with a relieved but awkward smile breaking across his face.
The two nurses walked ahead of him, leaning briefly towards each other to share a whispered remark outside his earshot. After a sequence of lefts and rights through corridors lined with cheerful art prints, they arrived at his assigned room. The pair took it in turn to explain where to find the loos, what times meals would be available throughout the day, and when he was next scheduled to have a meeting with one of the doctors. After these few minutes settling him in they left to continue their other duties.
Nero sat on the bed and glanced from wall to wall and then got up to peer through the small, square window looking out across the hospital grounds and ultimately to the Oxford Science Park units a few hundred yards away. He observed matchstick figures getting on with their day-to-day business and heard a distant two tone honk from a diesel train, followed by a muted slap back echo and receding mechanical growl – it was drowned out by loud, tuneless singing from a patient in the corridor outside his room.
It struck Nero he should call Dixey back, so he reached for his mobile and moved around the room until another signal bar appeared, tapped the number preset and heard it ringing. He waited tensely, not yet having worked out what to say to him.
“Ah, Nero. Nice of you to call, mate,” answered Dixey sarcastically in his measured South-London-with-a-splash-of-County-Cork brogue.
In the short but eternal pause before his reply, Nero visualized Fin Dixey’s determined demeanour and presumptuous City suit. Nero had first met him two years earlier while he was working as an electricity meter reader. Dixey was collecting rent off one of his tenants while Nero was on his knees holding a torch in the shoe cupboard, remarking on how he was too busy to visit all his tenants by himself and that he needed someone he could trust to help out. The money being offered was better than he’d been getting and there was a company car too, plus what Dixey described as one of his nicer apartments; all in all an opportunity Nero would be stupid to turn down. And he’d been canny too, getting him to collect from the straightforward, reliable payers at first to ease him in gently. Then it started with the favours: visiting the awkward ones with tears and excuses, the ones who swore and threatened; then putting more pressure on Nero to meet his collection targets; forcing him to operate well outside his comfort zone.
“Er, sorry I didn’t get back to you, Fin,” he offered meekly, hoping for clemency. “I haven’t been well... I’m in hospital. It’s OK though, I’ve got yesterday’s takings. I just haven’t had chance to bank them.”
“Whatever. Sure you haven’t got any bad news for me?” replied Dixey dispassionately, leaving Nero unsure of his next move.
All the initial breezy charm that Dixey had used to reel him in on that first meeting had vanished long before. Nero had now lost his appetite.
“No, I’m just going to be out of action for a few days. I’ll be back on the round by next week I should think,” he added, attempting to inflect as much confidence as he could summon into his voice.
“Your not messing me around are you, Nero? I thought I could rely on you.”
“Course you can, Fin. Honestly, I’ll be –”
“Lorcan will be up for your cash and books; text him where you are, right?”
“Yeah, I’ll do it now, Fin. Thanks.”
Nero heard the dialling tone before he could complete his sentence. In his text to Lorcan he neglected to mention what type of hospital he was in, sparing himself embarrassment at least for the time being.
After pressing Send, his phone bleeped at him twice. The second bleep alerting him of a low battery. “The charger! Where’s the damn charger?” he said to himself, but out loud.
A reflexive slapping of pockets yielded nothing. It then dawned on him it was in the car. A microsecond after that, the realisation that the car must still be where he left it. He wondered in vain: did he lock it? Of course not. He’d been in no state to, had he; grasping at the straw that the police might have possibly impounded it. But the doubt gnawed away at him and he knew he had to find out right now or he’d become even more strung-out.
Nero found his way to the staff room and to Sarah who was sipping coffee; holding the rim of a hot plastic cup by the tips of her fingers.
“Sorry to bother you, er,” (he’d forgotten her name) “but have you any idea what happened to my car after the police brought me in? I really need to know.”
Naturally, Sarah looked a little startled at this sudden intruder to her downtime, put her coffee down, and suggested Nero take a few deep breaths and try and calm himself a bit while she thought about it. She’d no idea about his car but didn’t tell him, instead reassuring him that she would call the police station to see if they knew anything. In the meantime, Nero chewed his nails to the finger and paced up and down in a negative mental loop.
The change of expression on Sarah’s face informed Nero it was bad news. She put the phone down and paused for a few seconds, trying to summon up the best way of telling him. There wasn’t one.
“Was it a black 1998 BMW 5 Series?” she asked sheepishly.
Nero nodded, his metaphorical straw now crumbled to dust.
“I’m sorry, but your car was reported as being burnt-out on the estate.”
Nero’s eyes closed and his body appeared to deflate. He didn’t really hear any of Sarah’s attempts to comfort him. She wasn’t to know that the news was a bit worse than the inconvenience of filling out an insurance claim. It wasn’t his car, it was Dixey’s, and he’d ballsed-up. Nero wiped the outstretched palm of his hand slowly down past his mouth, thanked Sarah for what she’d done, and turned to retrace his steps back to his room – thoughts crowding in.
“Will you be all right, Nigel? Can I get you anything?”
Distracting himself with a less urgent concern, Nero turned slowly on the spot and delved into his trouser pocket and presented the socket side of his mobile to Sarah: “Well, my phone’s nearly out of charge. Looks like my charger went up in the car. You haven’t got one that’d fit have you?”
Sarah took the phone from him and squinted at the socket.
“No, mine’s a different shape and smaller. Sorry. Anything else I can do for you? Have you eaten?”
“No, I’m fine,” he lied, “don’t worry.”
“Oh, while you’re here you could take your medication with you.”
“What is it?”
“Just an anti-depressant. Might as well get started now; they take a few weeks to work properly.”
“I knew it. Here comes the Prozac.”
“Well, not quite.”
Nero took the bottle from Sarah and held it with an expression of obvious suspicion distorting his face.
Back in his room, Nero began to wring his hands nervously and fidget with awkward movements, ultimately leaning back and stretching out on his hospital bed, breathing in and out heavily. For a while he’d managed to put it all to the back of his mind, into a murky fug, but the panic was now building and coursing through his body; feverish and kaleidoscopic thought patterns mixed with half remembered recollections of the last few
But added to the feelings of anxiety was a new visitor: was he thinking someone else’s thoughts, someone even more cracked than he was? Through his eyes the room began to resemble a projected scene from an unfamiliar film; the detached sensation of being at one remove from what he saw before him, like a screen within a screen. The rational receded. He knew it must be the drug at work, like someone twiddling knobs up there, tipping the delicate balance of his brain chemistry and introducing a new flavour of mania to burden him. The hazy melt between delirium and reality became increasingly blurred.
He shuddered back to semi-lucidity. Outside, twittering finches. Every chirp chipped his skull; the abrasive shards of noise seeming to reverberate inside his head. Nero was now solid with fear; restless and wretched with nausea, folded foetal and rocking, perhaps for hours, until eventually fatigue yielded to sleep.
Morning faded in. It was just after eight by his watch. During the space of half an hour or so, the jangle of bizarre thoughts which had abducted his reason throughout the night gradually steadied and he arrived at a delicate state of mental equilibrium.
Nero walked over to the washbasin and swilled his face several times from the cold water tap until he felt properly awake. In the mirror, he saw a defeated man with sad blue eyes, thinning once-blonde hair and a florid face. When he was in his twenties he’d borne a passing resemblance to the actor David Hemmings – best known for the film, Blow Up in the sixties – a kind of innocent wide eyed fragility mixed with petulance. Once washed, he walked over to the window and poked open a gap in the blinds with his finger and watched commuters arriving at the hospital, feeling an enormous sense of relief at not having to call on his miserable roster of debtors.
He heard three gentle knocks on the door of his room followed by a cheerful, “Morning Nigel. Is it OK for me to come in?” It was Sarah.
“Yes, come in,”
“Don’t you get any time off?” he enquired.
“Oh, I slept over. My shift ends at noon.”
Yesterday, he’d been too preoccupied to notice her vividly dyed red hair tied into a ponytail. She asked him what kind of night he’d had and whether he’d slept well. Nero guardedly admitted to his hallucinatory adventure as Sarah gave a friendly but tentative smile while she noted down the nub of his replies on her clipboard, and then reached to pick up his completed assessment test papers.
“Thanks for doing this. If you want, I can give you some tranquillizers to help you a bit, in case you need them over the next few days”.
“You can if you like, but I’m not taking any more of those other things you gave me yesterday. I thought they were supposed to help me, not completely fry my brain.” Nero replied with exasperation, while looking down at his feet.
“Oh, did they; it’s sometimes a question of finding one that works for you. It must have been distressing – I’m sorry they made you feel worse.”
Ordinarily he would have attempted to flash some charm at an attractive girl like her, but then became all too aware that as a nondescript, mildly overweight man of almost fifty he was more than likely invisible in “that” way to a woman of her age – it made him feel a little less self-conscious. Sarah continued with a few more questions as Nero gradually settled into feeling more comfortable in her company. There was the usual matter-of-factness and professional distance to people in her line of work, but she appeared genuinely concerned about him and seemed to want to help.
“You could just catch breakfast if you hurry. Do you feel like any?”
“Thanks. Yes, I think I could. Where do I go?”
“Left up the corridor, first right,” replied Sarah, pointing the direction through the wall as she spoke, “but you’re down to see Doctor Benoit at nine.”
Within ten minutes, Nero was spooning into a welcome bowl of cornflakes. He felt anxious amongst the other patients but tried his best to appear nonchalant; as if he were sitting at his regular table in Brown’s Cafe in the Covered Market. He swigged another mouthful of milky tea and noticed that most of the dozen or so people in the canteen looked normal enough to him. However, one intense young man in an ill-fitting brown suit looked a bit jumpy and was continually waggling his foot as he ate. Nero’s arc of curiosity then settled on a slightly dishevelled older woman looking directly at him – well, more through him really. He quickly acknowledged her with an attempted smile and a raise of his eyebrows as a friendly gesture. She showed no awareness of his presence, just chewed intently, her lower jaw moving from side to side. Nero’s grin became somewhat fixed and then disappeared in awkwardness as he returned to his cereal.
A well used copy of The Guardian caught his eye. He reached for it from the edge of the table. It was the previous day’s issue: October 16th 2008, and was open and folded to reveal an article headed The End of Capitalism? All summer, and particularly in the last couple of weeks, plenty of financial shit had been hitting fans in America and Europe; now one exceptionally weighty turd had vaporized in the blades: Lehman’s bank, following a massive bailout the week before of the two biggest U.S. mortgage lenders. No-one talked in millions being lost any more, it was billions, tens of billions – and now trillions being casually bandied about on fraught news broadcasts every night on TV. This uncertainty in the world all contributed to ratcheting up Nero’s nerves again. He glanced at his wrist: it was time to see this latest shrink.
Nero was starting to get more familiar with the hospital layout, and after getting directions from a cleaner, soon found Dr. Benoit’s door and gave it a knock. He was expecting the reply to possess a French accent, but not too the light, almost feminine quality he could detect in the voice.
“Ah yes, come on in.”
Nero opened the door to reveal a slightly-built man, probably in his late twenties, with straight, dark brown shoulder length hair and a centre parting; it struck him how similar in appearance he was to that actor, whose name he couldn’t recall, who appeared in many of Truffaut’s films, whom he followed from boy to man. The doctor was on tiptoes, with arms outstretched upwards to the high window, hands cupped against the glass.
“Mr. Bain, yes?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Nero replied with a questioning look.
“You are wondering what I’m up to, aren’t you? I see it in your face,” he anticipated with a jaunty chuckle, turning his head to acknowledge him.
“Well, I am trying to save this little creature before he tires himself out,” he revealed, while wearing a victorious expression as he approached Nero. “Could you please open the window for me?”
Nero brushed past the doctor and stretched upwards to give the stiff metal handle several firm pushes with the rear of his right palm before it obliged.
“Thank you. I’ll let him go now.”
Nero watched the young doctor gently release a large yellow butterfly and follow it intently with his gaze into the autumn sunshine. The breeze zig-zagged its hesitant fluttering progress away from his hands.
“Perhaps it was the warmth of the heating that fooled him it was summer. I wonder how long he will survive. But better to be free, yes?” he said, beaming. “Please take a seat. Call me Alain. I’m to call you Nigel, yes?” asked the doctor, rubbing his hands and smiling warmly, seating himself behind his desk.
“Most people know me as Nero, but you can call me Nigel if you prefer.”
After a few polite enquiries regarding how he was settling in, Alain silently leafed through Nero’s Depression, Anxiety and Stress Test with an inquisitive tilt to his head. He replaced his look of concentration with a friendly, beatific smile.
“Nigel. After looking at some of the answers you’ve given here, how do you imagine your friends would describe you, do you think?”
Nero’s eyes grew rounder and his eyebrows arched as he plumbed within for an answer – he tended to avoid much conscious self-examination.
“Well... reliable, I suppose.”
“Good. Anything else?”
Nero was puzzled by this line of questioning; it was the sort of thing you’d get thrown at you in a job interview. His eyes searched around the room for inspiration, and found none.
“Well... I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry. I perhaps threw you a bit of a googly there – though to be honest I’m not entirely sure what the term means. So, Nigel, in general, would you describe yourself as a good person or a bad person?”
“Dunno... average, I suppose. I’m no angel. “
“I see. And would you say you are a confident man, or perhaps a worrier?“
“I wouldn’t say I worried too much; just the usual things.”
Appearing relaxed and open, Alain lay back in his tilting chair and supported his neck with clasped fingers, elbows pointing out.
“You mentioned just now you were ‘no angel’; what about any feelings of regret or guilt at all in your life?”
“I mean, I try not to hurt anyone, but, you know, I’ve got to make a living. Everyone has to; you can’t be too sensitive about things, can you? People can take advantage.”
“So, in your life, you find there are people who perhaps exploit you in some way?”
Nero rubbed his neck with his left hand as he thought, and began to squirm uncomfortably in his seat. “Well yes, if you’re too soft they will, won’t they?”
Alain chose to change tack. “OK Nigel, we’ll leave that one for now. Tell me, do you have any siblings at all?”
Nero was visibly relieved at the pressure being taken off. “No, there’s just me.”
Alain paused for a few seconds before speaking again, playing with the button on top of his pen as he looked out of the window, appearing to Nero that he was expecting to catch sight of his butterfly once more. “Thinking back to when you were a boy, would you say you were generally happy on your own, or did you ever feel lonely?”
“I don’t recall feeling lonely, no. I was always playing out with my friends – you’re not going for the spoilt only-child thing are you?” replied Nero with a derisive note in his voice. He could see the conversation going down a familiar path, as characterized in what he could recall from most TV and films involving psychiatric cross-examination.
“I’m not going for anything, Nigel. I’m simply trying to find out more about you and what could have led up to this crisis in your life.” Nero wondered why medical people like him felt compelled to use the word ‘crisis’ as a euphemism for what they really meant – that he’d gone off his head. “I’m interested in what you said to me earlier, Nigel; when you told me that most people now call you Nero. Didn’t you like your original name for some reason?”
“I just thought it was dull, that’s all.”
Second guessing that Alain was possibly onto the juicy bone of some supposed neurosis buried deep down inside him, he elected to inform the doctor of what he believed to be the unremarkable events that led up to him choosing this new identity.