Excerpt from Stranger Than Kindness by Mark A Radcliffe (Bluemoose Books - November 2013)
1. The Damage Is Done
‘I’d love to sit down dear, but I haven’t got a body.’
Libby Hoffman was serious, if inaccurate. Of course she had a body. It wasn’t a very big one, but it Was a body nonetheless: old and thin, she looked like she was made from wire and tissue paper. Still, it was there and it was quite strong given her age: 85, and her occupation: lunatic. On top of this skinny, slightly stooped body sat a crinkled face with an expression set between surprise and contempt. She only smiled at Christmas and that was probably because everyone wore stupid hats, although it is possible that it was also because Christmas reminded her of something funny from before she had become a lunatic, which was a very very long time ago. Or it might have been the sherry.
Adam Sands, who was the nurse in charge, glanced up from his newspaper. The problem with raising his head was that there was more chance of the light getting him. Sure enough here it came, stabbing him through the eyes and scratching around the inside of his skull. Libby had a tea stain on her white cardigan; a student nurse looked primed to talk at her. A patient called Michael Wells was standing in front of the television with a handful of biscuits watching the news. He was wearing a filthy anorak and jeans that were misshapen enough to almost certainly belong to someone else. He was talking to the newsreader—a dour man with a posh accent—comfortable in the knowledge that the newsreader was talking right back.
A Nursing Assistant with hips the size of Belgium was standing over a dazed woman with no hair called Mary Peacock. Belgium was telling her loudly that she needed to open her bowels, preferably into or at least near a toilet. A tiny Irish cleaner was singing show tunes as she mopped the floor outside the nurse’s office. Beyond that there wasn’t much to see. Adam returned to his paper. He liked to think that by sitting in the day room, by being seen, he lent a sense of safety to the ward. He also thought that his presence would serve to filter out any acts of unkindness or cruelty. The Nursing Assistant, for example, was less likely to lift the confused and obese Mary Peacock up and drop her on to a commode if the charge nurse was sitting nearby. He was not oblivious to the fact that his being there did not stop her from shouting about bowels while the breakfast trolley was still being put away, but Adam believed that if you ask too much of people they will rush to disappoint you.
Adam still read newspapers from the back, starting with the football and leaving the real world until last. Today’s outrage was another bomb. This one in Kent on an army barracks, killing eleven people. Adam never looked at the pictures or read beyond the first few lines. A decade of tabloid jingoism and bile about distant colonial wars and ‘enemies within’ had rendered him immune to the fact that outside of the hospital everyone seemed to hate everyone else. Anyway, he was skim-reading because his head hurt. He was dehydrated from the cheap whisky the night before, and the half-life of last night’s diazepam probably didn’t help either and if that in itself wasn’t enough to numb the brain, Dire bloody Straits were playing on the radio in the background.
This sort of music still made Adam think of Live Aid. He had hated it; thousands of people with bad hair coming together to do some self-congratulatory clapping. When they showed the images of dying, pot-bellied babies overlaid with the carefully chosen soundtrack he cried, of course he did, but unlike his soon-to-depart live-in girlfriend Catherine, who cried very loudly for bloody ages, he wasn’t reassured by his tears. He didn’t feel they made him a better human being: rather, he just feared he was being manipulated.
He told someone he was in bed with a few weeks later that he was perhaps the only person who didn’t give any money to Live Aid.
‘I don’t know anyone who gave money to it,’ she said. ‘You can’t buy your own conscience.’ Which he didn’t understand but they had sex anyway.
‘There are only two emotions available to us nowadays,’ she whispered later. ‘You can be either smug or angry. We live in a time where music is for people who don’t like music and politics is for people who don’t like people’.
That was all he remembered of that night, that and the fact that her soft dark skin had smelled of sweetened coconut. He wished he could remember more; he rather thought he’d like to listen to other things she said.
‘Libby, if you haven’t got a body how did you get here?’ The student was doing some nursing and he was doing it near Adam.
Libby Hoffman ignored the boy. She stood completely still, staring at the blank yellow wall of the day room and hooking her bony thin finger through a hole in her cardigan. Adam had come to know this as her brace position.
‘Libby, I am talking to you: how did you get here if you haven’t got a body?’ He spoke with a see-saw rhythm, too shrill to be warm, too loud to be kind.
‘I walked, you silly bugger,’ Libby said. Her mouth continued moving after the words as though she was still speaking, or chewing.
Adam almost smiled. He glanced over at the student: he had the thickest hair he had ever seen on a man, a great big bush of mousy brown fleece which stood upright on his head. It had to, there was nowhere for it to settle on the crowded and ungentle head.
‘Please don’t use that sort of language,’ said the boy. ‘Come and sit by me,’ he instructed, but Libby hadn’t wanted to sit beside anyone since the early 1960s. ‘Libby. Libby.’ The student was getting even louder and Libby Hoffman was moving her weight from one foot to another, like a child who needed the toilet.
The radio was playing Careless Whisper by George Michael.
‘The bastards,’ thought Adam.