This piece appeared in
Staple no.21, Summer 1991. Staple was a magazine of new writing
published from the Derbyshire College of Higher Education, with
financial assistance from East Midlands Arts.
I am indebted to Andy Wrathall, JTS collector, for sending me Staple 21, and also the World Medicine piece from 1980 which I am putting up at the same time — GL, July 2006
CROSS IN HAND
If you were born 1917 and are between marriages or their look-alikes then you are in danger of falling into the hands of your next of kin, somebody you only know by sight if you have lived a full life. Your next of kin, your ambience of neglected relations and who are worse, their nooky, people who have entered your family by marriage or impregnation, are waiting to get their own back on the old writer.
'I've had a telephone call from your daughter. She and your family and friends are worried about you.' This is your friend and carer the medicine man, your GP. Pretty soon he has activated the 'unusual behaviour' part of his job and you are carried out of the house by two other doctors and a policeman, struggling to prove your normality.
Don't walk too fast. These are guidelines for free-wheeling (ownerless) septuagenarians. Don't not walk too fast, either. First warnings that telephones have been busy, you get new concerns from old friends. You now find they can write letters. Are you well? Because if they decide you are not well, the caring system comes in like tanks.
'You were lying naked under a horse trough,' my key-nurse told me. He should have added, 'With a camera.' But that detail vouchsafed might have rationalised and spoilt their case. It was last August's heatwave and two people died. With my Canon I was illustrating Uncommanded Rate Of Climb, a book uncompleted and lost. Dehydration is the shortest route to the lunatic asylum when there are witnesses. Waiting to tidy your life.
Once kidnapped into Stoke Mandeville, Ward 5, your witnesses appear, few at a time, with flowers and Smarties.
'You must cry!' said my key-nurse. You must cry to show that you know that everybody loves you, that you have treated them badly all your life and that now they are telling you so. 'Look, he's crying. Very good.' It's too technical for most people.
The soft shoe shuffle of elderly lunatic life is punctuated by a telephone bell warning the presence of wanderers and potential escapees in the shopping or garden area. There are no dogs, but whispered conversations take place, small histories are revealed.
When Arnold went they fostered me out, but I didn't like that. A scream pierced the night and a chanter walked past calling on God for help. As a writer, I molested one or two. Kathy was once a well-known animal act.
‘We had an elephant,' she said.
I do not wish to incriminate the living, but it is my bounden duty, as Lenny Bruce might say, to prepare good though elderly people without plastic cards for such futures of gloom and despair. 'Never pick one up,' says Lenny, talking about midgets. They really hate that.'
When you come out everybody wants to give you a little dog. I think this is English. Your family are shocked at what the place has done to you, the day-long shuffling in the mentally-subnormal carpet slippers, the side effects of unknown chemicals, blindness, mindless, no reading or writing any more, no coherent stream of consciousness ─ hopefully they see the old you with a little dog. Instead of with heatwave hypomania and irregular behaviour.
One day last Summer I jumped into a ditch and remained hidden for three hours, escaping from the custodianship of my loved ones. My stay with Caroline and Rohan was supposed to be a voluntary interim before coming home to freedom, but when I sat too long in the outside lavatory I found two police cars had arrived. That's when I decided to split. For two days and nights I lived in the fields and lanes of East Sussex, sleeping flat on the wet grass of night with sky and trees and creatures, all by starlight in inky darkness, aged 73. Changing fields I would walk softly past quiet homes, fearful of disturbing dogs. In the daytime I disguised myself and prepared the talk and manners of a professor of horticulture from Leicester University (I do have a connection) explaining that I was on a field course in wild harvest. It was a good summer for sloes.
There was a kind of height, a kind of joy to this episode in my life when people outside a pub at Cross In Hand came over and brought me drinks ─ I had no money and was asking for water. I felt that I was in the Robert Donat version of The Thirty-nine Steps. One day you'll write about it, I told myself. That was August Bank Holiday 1990 and I was alone and moneyless in an alien land.
I sat hidden on this scorching morning in a 4-person concrete bus-stop shelter on the village green. I had lost my hat in somebody's garden while getting nudged by a giant black monster, a dog, a German guard dog, very friendly though. It could have eaten me, its owner told me when 1 went back in daylight. I had slept in the garden, thinking it was a field.
Soon I gave up, mentally. In the little hot box I did not feel very well and I had not had my heart tablets and I did not want to die. I made a reverse charge call from a box on the other side of the Eastbourne road, race track. Instead of getting my worried children I got Jim Lemmon.
I had had a last-second stubborn rebellion, all that lying out and picking hippy-haws and walking miles, all for nothing. Jim is one of the friends who would not have been alerted to my mental condition, my danger to the public and myself. He was on his way to Germany ─ he sells a roller-towel and laundry service in Germany.
'There is a ditch behind this kiosk,' I instructed him.
He was in Maidenhead. It took him eight hours to find the right Cross In Hand village. When he arrived a taxi came up with him ─ I had chickened out, melting away and dying. He took me back to his mum's in Dartford, leaving Caroline's taxi driver searching. It's a poor ending, but the intellect is returning to life though my eyes, I think, will take longer. Meanwhile I am being watched and will have to move away from here.
Julian comes in, a nice hospital follow-up man, often with a trainee girl. They chat and smile and cast around for signs of normality. Questions about the drugs. We are addressing here the vulnerability of the single grandparent family. Invaded by carers, had Elaine been here, she would have told them I was busy. Elaine looked after me from 1972 until she went to university (1982) just after our marriage*. She is a poet's Cross In Hand against uncomprehending devils.
Jack Trevor Story
* See Dwarf Goes to Oxford, Leveret Press, 1987.
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