Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Place of Safety

Following my shameful and unforgivably public display of emotion, I was quite rightly taken by Messrs. Hobbs and Harding of the Clapham Constabulary to the Princess Royal Ward in the Bowes-Lyon Unit under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act (1983), which empowers the police to remove from a public place a person they consider to be suffering from a mental disorder and escort him or her to what is called a place of safety, where he or she can be kept for up to seventy-two hours for the purpose of psychiatric assessment.

The memory of my egregious aberration had left me in such a state of shocked bewilderment, and the enormity of my disgrace weighed so heavily upon me, that I offered no resistance and indeed remained quiet and quiescent throughout the short journey and soon I found myself ensconced in somewhat austere comfort in a small and windowless room that was quite bare save for a bed, a chair and a tin ashtray upon a wooden dresser. I was given a mug of sweet tea and a slice of bread and jam by a beefy nurse with purple hair and pieces of metal stuck in her face who informed me that I'd be seen by the duty psychiatrist at his earliest convenience, and in the meantime I was free to avail myself of the facilities on offer in the communal lounge area.

I gathered my smoking materials and took my tea to the lounge, which turned out to be a very large and very dingy room with a greasy, threadbare carpet, old and decrepit chairs scattered about and a television set bolted to the far wall. In one corner was a severely dented vending machine that dispensed potato crisps and chocolate bars, and beside it a kind of kitchen area with a sink and a fridge and a kettle and the makings of tea and coffee in a cupboard without doors.

Through the fug of Old Holborn and Golden Virginia I surveyed the room and recognized several of my regular patients, familiar tramps from the streets of Clapham. There was old Kevin O'Leary and his girlfriend Mary McGuire; Liam Linehan and Micky Milligan; Derek O'Donoghue and, blow me down, 'Doolally Sally' O'Mally. We'd all been wondering what had become of her. It was like being with old friends and suddenly I felt strangely at ease, at home almost.

No one noticed my arrival, however, because they were all staring as if transfixed at the TV screen, watching some new and apparently quite surreal American game show which I'd never seen before and which involved people standing on the roofs of houses that stood, bizarrely, in a lake, waving their hands and being ferried about on ropes swinging from helicopters. One of the contestants waved a huge flag, the size of a bedsheet, with the word 'diabetic' scrawled on it in red paint, while another played his 'baby needs water' card.

I didn't understand the rules but not wishing to appear either ignorant or aloof I chuckled loudly and after the briefest moment of guilty hesitancy everyone else began laughing too; and as the scene changed to a shot of an old and very fat woman being pushed with grim determination by her equally ancient and obese husband through four feet of filthy water in a wheelchair, her head barely above the surface, the whole audience was convulsed uncontrollably with the insane laughter, not of humour, but of the joyous celebration of overwhelming relief.

We were warm and we were dry; we had a fridge and a kettle and plenty of tobacco. We were here and we were now and we were safe; and there was nowhere on this terrifying planet that we would rather have been.