The First Day
The pressure was building on Charlie and his life so much, that some mornings he felt he might get the ‘bends’ if he sat up too quickly.
He was 45 – tick, he was a London cab driver – tick. He had five kids – tick - count them, one boy and four girls. What did they want? Everything under the sun. When did they want it? Straight away or sooner. He had a significant other – tick. Charlie and Tracey hadn’t bothered to get married as they had both had
their ‘less-than-perfect’ times with their first marriages.
So what was wrong with him? Well even although Charlie worked eight and a half days a week, he still couldn’t keep up with the family’s need for money. He was so far in debt that his nose would bleed every time he spent some. He’d been to the doctor twice in the last year, when he thought he was having heart attacks. It had turned out they were caused by panic attacks – but to Charlie, they felt just as bad.
Charlie couldn’t remember if he was happy anymore. Every day was like the one before and the one before that. The eldest girl had been seeing a boy called Stephen for a year now, and they were talking about getting married. Charlie was hoping they might elope but all his darling daughter would say was that she wanted ‘the full she-bang’ and Tracey agreed with her. Charlie’s head had gone dizzy just thinking about it. Every night when he got home, there were threatening letters from one debt agency or other – they just seemed to pass the debt on from one company to the next. Charlie wasn’t really sure who he owed the money to, just that he owed a lot and probably wouldn’t pay it all off until he was dead about ten years.
Those nights when things seemed more terrible in the dark, he had made up plans – escape plans. One had been to run away to another country and change his name. But what country? And what name? Another idea was to join the Foreign Legion but he wasn’t sure about the camels and all that sand. He’d even thought of jumping off a bridge into the Thames - but he was too much of a coward for that and anyway, he’d probably fail and just owe someone more money because of it.
So there was only one plan left, Plan Z he called it and he was going to make it happen today. He had a call to collect a Mrs Beverly at some hotel in the West End. Once he’d dropped her off, he do it. Definitely. This was the day – Plan Z day when his life was going to change……for a while, at least.
When he woke that morning, he could feel his heart already working up to palpitations – that wasn’t a good sign, but hey, he never saw any good signs these days, unless it came up and slapped him in the face. He still liked a beer with the boys but he couldn’t buy a round for the rest of the gang, so he tended to stay on his own. But at least the guys didn’t talk about I-this or I-that; not like his kids.
Mrs Beverly seemed a nice woman (for a change) as Charlie slung her suitcase into the cab, but very quickly the worm turned. She seemed to know better than him, the quickest way to this place or that. She’d let out a ‘oh no’ as he turned corners that she didn’t approve off, and it was then it hit Charlie. He drove the cab to the door of St Barabbas Hospital. A large gothic building which catered for the insane, or, at least, those already on their way there. Charlie ran the cab up onto the flower bed outside the front door. He left the engine of his cab running and Mrs Beverly using language that Charlie hadn’t heard in years. He threw the keys into a rose-bush and entered the hospital with a huge grin on his face.
When Charlie, explained that he was checking himself into St Barabbas on account that he was crazy, an orderly was sent on the thankless task to retrieve Mrs Beverly from the taxi. She thumped the orderly with her bag and ran off to inform the police of her weird journey, and, which she assured the orderly, she wouldn’t be paying a penny to that rude driver who had no idea where he was going.
By the time that Charlie had been prodded, examined and registered as a man with mental problems, he was in the grey and green hospital pyjamas and had been allocated a bed in Ward H. That was where they stuck those they weren’t sure of, or those who needed more investigation. Charlie felt that was a fair assessment, on account that he wasn’t insane just in need of some rest and rehabilitation. His family could deal with the financial mess that he had left, at least until the financial storms outside, blew over – then he’d return to the bosom of his family, a new man.
That was just a plan, however. The problem was going to be in convincing the shrinks and doctors that he was deserving to stay there. He’d watched a programme on television, years before, about a prisoner-of-war who had faked insanity in order to be removed from some camp. The trouble had been that he’d had to keep it up for so long, that the man turned clinically insane and did indeed, get shipped off to an asylum. So Charlie was walking a fine line, and he appreciated that.
The following morning, which to Charlie’s surprise, came at 9.30am (he hadn’t been allowed to sleep that long since he stayed at home as a teenager).
“Don’t worry Mister…or will I just call you Charlie?” Asked the nurse.
Charlie nodded and loved the fact that no one was screaming in his face or looking for money. The nurse, who was ginger-headed and in her forties, told Charlie that his breakfast was waiting on him in the sun-lounge.
Charlie felt he had died and gone to Heaven and wondered why he hadn’t done all this before. He was given a dressing gown and slippers on account he hadn’t come in with any, and he walked the few yards to the very sunny conservatory.
There were two others in the room when he got there. One was a man, much the same age as Charlie, who shook Charlie’s hand and said to call him, Des. The other was a red-faced woman who just smiled and looked away.
The man called Des gave the red-faced woman a thumbs-up as if she had done something good.
“So what are you in for?” Asked Des.
“What is your illness? Paranoid? Schizo? Bipolar? Something we haven’t heard of?”
Charlie didn’t know how to answer this.
“I’m not sure,” said Charlie.
“He’s a ‘not-sure’,” shouted Des to the red-faced lady as if she was deaf as well. Perhaps she was, thought Charlie.
“What about you?” Asked Charlie, not sure if it was good protocol to ask about how nutty someone was.
“Well there lies a story,” said Des and then he got up, looked both ways out the corridor, and followed this by closing the main conservatory door.
“These walls have ears. You’re never sure if they are listening or not – you know, to asses you.”
“How do you know this room is safe?” Asked Charlie.
“’Caused I’ve had it swept for bugs. Used to be my job on the outside. You’re not a cop are you? Or a tax man? Swear on your life.” Charlie swore that he wasn’t.
Then Des told Charlie that he was actually only in St Barabbas to hide out until the world economy got back on its feet. His company had been in trouble (the one he’d built up from scratch) and in order to avoid going bankrupt, he’d decided to go insane.
Charlie had to laugh, and then he told Des and the red-faced woman his own story. It seemed that the woman could hear him without much problem.
“She feigns deafness, in case,” said Des.
“In case of what?” Asked Charlie.
“In case they send in a double agent,” then Des touched the side of his nose. Just at that point, Charlie wondered if maybe Des wasn’t just plain crazy after all.
Then the red-face woman, Dora, told her story. She had a sister who refused to get a job and expected Dora to keep her. So in order to ‘show-her’, Dora checked herself in and was waiting in the hospital until the world was a better place to live.
“Is no one in this place in here because they are simply crazy?” Asked Charlie.
“You don’t call anyone crazy, not in Saint B’s. They are all just people with little “foibles”. Ones that need ironing out,” said Des and he had formed rabbits’ ears with his fingers around the word “foibles”. “But since you asked, I haven’t actually met anyone in here who is crazy. Everyone is hiding out until the economy recovers. And one other thing, you better ask The Colonel to assign you an illness. One that hasn’t been taken,” then Des got up an opened the door again.
“You can’t keep it shut too long, or they get suspicious.”
Charlie was wondered what illness The Colonel would assign him, as he was looking out the hospital window, watching his taxi getting towed away from the flower beds.
Charlie smiled again. He’d never been so happy.