My best friend, a film director, phoned to say he was going to make a film out of my screenplay. He wanted me to play the lead character. It would be a guerrilla movie. It would be shot not using conventional cameras but with clandestine ones. Scenes would be captured surreptitiously on CCTV and mobile-phone cameras, from a distance, all to be edited later. I would not know when I was being filmed, so I was to stay in character all the time, be the part, be the movie. Straight away after the phone call I started. Started acting in this movie.
At night people came down out of the attic and into my bedroom. They stood laughing at the foot of my bed and they pulled out my toenails. My friend listened patiently as I told him my vivid memories of them. I went to bed in fear, waiting for their return.
There were rows of snipers positioned on the roofs of buildings. They were waiting for a signal and then they would start shooting, kill everyone below. It would be a massacre, no one stood a chance against them. No one else knew about the snipers: everyone went about their business oblivious. But I lived in fear of the snipers and I had to escape Dublin before the slaughter began. It was an overwhelming feeling, this fear I had; it distressed me that everyone would die and I could not help them.
The radio spoke to me when I had it on. It spoke to me and me alone. There were coded messages and meanings only I could understand.
None of these things happened, none of these things were true. There was no phone call, no movie, no people coming down from the attic, no snipers, and no messages from the radio. None of it was real. But it was very real to me. They were things I could see, hear and feel, things I knew.
When the fear of the snipers got to be too much, I bought a ticket for the ferry-bus and travelled to London. A few days after getting there, having spent some sleepless nights in a cheap and cheerless B&B, I was walking up some Underground steps when I collapsed, sank to the ground, and slept. The mania I had been experiencing, that had been driving my fears, delusions, and paranoia, had kept me awake too long.
When I came to, commuters were stepping over me, indifferent to my condition. My wallet was gone. Now I was in London, with no money and only a fragile grip on reality. Sensible things like calling someone collect back in Dublin, or getting in touch with friends and relatives in England, did not occur to me. The paranoia kept me on edge, and I felt an urgent compulsion to keep moving. I went up into the light above the Underground and began to walk, unsure of my destination. A little bit of sense in my mind told me: I was now, at thirty-five years of age, homeless and penniless in London.
The hallucinations and delusions continued. They did not always dominate my consciousness, but more often than not I was living in a sort of waking dream world. In that world, I was a private investigator working a case. Just a few years before, I had worked in New York for a security firm that employed a few private detectives, and this is no doubt where the idea got planted in my subconscious. At times, desperate and scared, I would reverse-call the firm in New York, somehow able to recall the number after several years, and leave urgent messages with the answering service: ‘There’s an agent down.’
What they made of these confused messages, I do not know. What help I expected, I do not know. Why the private investigator in me could phone strangers for help when I myself could not phone family or friends I do not know either.
There were concentration camps dotted all around the perimeter of the city. Only I was aware of them. Standing on the platform of train and Underground stations I would stare for long periods at the carriages full of people. Sadness overwhelmed me: did they not know their fate? They were being sent to the gas chambers. But there they sat, chatting and reading, oblivious of what was ahead of them. Only I could smell the fetid stench coming off the trains, see the decay of the carriages, their disintegrating fabric communicating death and genocide. It did not cross my mind to consider what people made of me, staring at trains and weeping.
At times, I believed I saw friends or recognized people from my past. To me, they were all acting – perhaps in the movie that was being made with me in the lead role. So it was that one day I was being driven by some police officers in their patrol car. Where they were taking me to, I did not know. But I drove with them quite happily. They had picked me up in the café of a local park, where I had been sobbing uncontrollably, overcome by sadness brought on by the sight of people sitting in the café and enjoying their tea – something that was lost to me. This felt better, being driven in the patrol car.
Beside me in the back seat sat a female police officer. But it was not a female police officer. It was my ex-girlfriend, C, an actor in real life, now wearing the uniform of a police officer. I was too excited to act the scene, and so I spoke to her as if she were C, even held her hand as I did so. She was patient with me and smiled, did not seem confused when I spoke of past times together, or when I asked her what she had been doing all the years since. And so the journey continued, the two police officers exchanging glances in the rear-view mirror and smiling, and I, talking with C, smiling also.
On another occasion I was in a grocer’s, counting out the change I had begged so as to buy a can of beer. Behind the counter stood my old friend P, goatee and all, now wearing make-up and a turban so as to look the part of an Asian shopkeeper. This time I accepted he was playing a part in the movie I was in, and this was just another scene, so I didn’t break out of character and speak to him as I would ordinarily have spoken to P. The scene went on uninterrupted. He took my payment for the beer and I thanked him like I would any shopkeeper. But I knew it was P.
There were many hostels, and many other nights rough sleeping. Many times I was detained by the police, brought to police-station cells for the night, fed, and taken into court the next morning to be charged and face the magistrate. Then I would be released with a court date which I would never keep. The reasons for these arrests were never clear to my delirious mind. Certainly I was never arrested for committing acts that I knew to be against the law; but I must have been breaking some vagrancy or loitering or begging statutes unknown to me. Simply by virtue of being homeless I could be arrested, it seemed.
I did shoplift, and was sometimes caught by security guards or shop staff, but I was never arrested for shoplifting. Occasionally, if I had stolen food, the staff would take pity on me and let me go.
I didn’t always shoplift out of necessity, however. Sometimes I did it so as to fill a deeper need, a need to connect to my former self through having in my possession an object that reminded me of it. So it was that I found myself in a religious bookshop, fingering a small and neatly bound bible under the watchful gaze of a clerk who was also a priest or member of a religious order, dressed in a soutane. A bible, because I had once sought religion in my life and it must have answered a need for comfort, to read words speaking to the spirit at a time when I was preoccupied with feeding the flesh alone.
When the clerk was with another customer I pocketed the bible and darted out of the store. Immediately I became aware of the soutane-clad shop clerk behind me. I broke into a sprint and he pursued me at the same pace. We ran across a cobbled courtyard between colonnaded buildings, a college of some sort, and suddenly I began to laugh, overtaken by the ridiculousness of it all. I sank to the ground laughing, expecting the priest to laugh it off with me. Instead, he arrived beside me, grabbed the proffered book out of my upheld hand, and gave me an angry thump on the head.
I wandered around a large music store near Piccadilly Circus. There was a floor where musical instruments were on display and I asked a clerk could I try out one of the guitars. He was suspicious of me, and stood closely by me as I played, running through all the simple folk songs I could remember. I kept playing, I was able to remember lots of songs, and the clerk must have been reassured that I was, after all, a legitimate customer, or maybe he’d just grown bored standing there, because he left me alone for a moment. Without a thought I left the store, taking the guitar. Then I started running.
I now had a guitar and I could play and sing and I thought now I would be able to survive being homeless in London: I could busk to make money. I was suddenly buoyed up, giddy at the prospect. I stopped at a kiosk and ordered a hot dog. But when it came to pay I found I didn’t have the means. Logic had evaded me: I should have busked first, to make the money to pay for the food. I explained to the vendor that I would come back and pay when I had made enough money busking. I indicated to him the guitar I had left leaning against the side of the kiosk as if to prove my creditworthiness. But he grew angry, and started shouting at me, and I shouted back insulting him, until we were screaming at each other.
Then he came out from behind the counter and confronted me. We circled around the kiosk a few times, he threatening, me continuing to throw out insults. Eventually he grew tired of this and went back to his business; I went back to retrieve my guitar. Of course it was no longer where I had left it.
I also shoplifted for toiletries: safety razors and shaving cream mostly. Sometimes I got away with this. Then I would go to the public toilets on Trafalgar Square and shave. It was another way of keeping a connection with who I was before. Then I would lose the razors and quickly become dishevelled once again.
It was a harsh winter, and I spent entire days walking outdoors, exposed to the cold air. The skin on my knuckles cracked, exposing bright red flesh in grooves that picked up dirt and bled.
One night I lost my shoes – a favourite pair of boots bought in a shop on Canal Street in Manhattan two years before, when life had been better. Now I got the notion, late in the evening, to practice t’ai chi – another remnant of a previous life – in a quiet corner off the Embankment. I took off my boots and socks and, barefoot, began to run through the various postures that make up the form of t’ai chi I had studied. When I had finished an entire cycle I wandered off for a while, completely forgetting about my boots. When I came back they were gone. They had had the softest leather I had ever worn. In a hostel, later, they gave me a pair of plastic flip-flops to replace them. Now I tramped around in the cold exposed to the elements, open-toed.
At the beginning I stayed often in the hostels. The one I went to most often was at a corner of Trafalgar Square, by the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields. Above it, during the day, was a market, approached from a laneway, where stallholders sold souvenirs and trinkets to tourists. At night this market became an overflow space for those rough sleepers who were turned away from the hostel when it was full.
One night I was turned away from the hostel at St Martin’s. They did not give me a reason why; maybe it was full, or maybe they had become irritated by the effects of my mania in that confined space. I went up to the laneway, intending to go in to the market yard. My routine, when I was forced to sleep in the yard, was to take some cardboard from the piles I found lying around and bed down under a market stall. It never occurred to me to question the provenance of this cardboard. I never thought I might be taking what was claimed by another, what belonged to another. Never thought how by taking it, I risked making myself unwelcome in the yard.
That night I went to the dark laneway and up to the market gate. The gate was locked at night, but if you pushed against it you could force open a gap to squeeze through. Before I could do so, I heard a shout go out from inside the yard: ‘He’s back!’ Dark figures squeezed out through the gate, fast, one after another until a dozen surrounded me in the laneway outside the market, hard men, rough sleepers, headed by the one who was their ringleader, a Scot who had always terrified me. They began to punch me. They punched and kicked and grabbed my hair to keep me still while, unobserved by any passersby, they punched some more in this dark corner of Trafalgar Square. A blow hit my nose and blood erupted over my face. More blows, more kicks. They would not stop, and I was wondering how I could survive.
Then a firm hand gripped me by the neck and in the melee I heard a voice quite close to my ear: ‘Keep your head down.’
It was an old man I had often met and chatted with in the hostel. He was helping me. Helping. I did what he said, and the punches began to lose their efficacy. Then I burrowed down lower and saw an opening in the mob around me. Went for it, broke away, broke through. Out, away from the laneway, and into the West End traffic that braked and swerved around me as I ran through it. Ran further until it felt safe to slow down, then staggered into a late-night burger joint and straight into the toilets.
There I saw myself in the mirror: blood smeared across my face, my hands, and all over my clothes. My ears whistled, my head was numbed from the beating. The shock of how close I had come to being killed surged through me, making me shake violently as I cleaned myself as best I could. That was the last night I dared go to the market.
Walking. Walking all day. Walking until exhausted then trying to sit somewhere to shelter from the cold a while. A train station, the Underground, a museum. Once a fast-food joint where the owner took pity on me and gave me a meal without my asking. Sitting indoors as long as possible before being moved on. Then walking again. My only comfort the cigarettes I constantly bummed off passers-by and could never get enough of. Then more walking. Until night, then finding some cardboard, a doorway, a place to sleep. Trying to stay out of sight, for safety. Not always succeeding.
Waking one night in a doorway to the sound of splattering liquid: looking up to see three well-dressed yobs out for the night, drunk, seeking a quick laugh. They stood over me and covered me in their urine. Dawn that day found me down at the steps by the Embankment, washing myself in the river.
Sometimes stopping out of sheer exhaustion, unable to walk any further. Any doorway. Any park. Any bench. Waking one freezing morning having been shaken. Becoming aware of hard morning: finding myself on a bench by the edge of a busy road, a man standing over me, still shaking my shoulder. He stood back when I woke.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I thought you were dead.’
Hungry. Always hungry. Not always able to beg enough to buy food in time to satisfy the endless clawing hunger. Stopping one night by an overflowing bin and trying to see if what seeped from it was edible. Leaning over, picking at a potato peel when out of nowhere came a blow to the ribs. Floored, winded, I looked up to see a young man hurrying away. No reason, except that he was disgusted at the sight of a human being reduced to the condition of an animal.
Train stations not a bad place to rest. Lost in the crowds, unnoticed by security a while. Chatting to a young office worker waiting for her connection out of London. She asked about me, then said: ‘Wait here.’
A few minutes later she returned with a bag: burger, fries, and drink. I felt overcome by her kindness: I would get through another day.
On Christmas Day, the lights looked bright on Oxford Street, but all I thought of was the sleet that began to fall. I walked in a near-empty city, hour after hour. No hope of getting change. It looked like I would not eat that day. Then, behind King’s Cross Station, I found a shop open. When I entered, the heat was like a blessing.
Behind the counter a man nodded to me. He was a Muslim and we talked a while about the photographs on the covers of the Middle Eastern newspapers the shop sold. A picture of a young boy serving tea particularly struck me: he seemed so innocent and full of joy. No one had entered the shop that day but me, and the shopkeeper intended to close soon. But he listened to my story and let me stay by the heater and really warm myself. Later he gave me food. For him it was zakat, for me it was life itself.
Finally he had to close the shop. He asked where I was going to go now, for the remainder of Christmas Day, for Christmas Night.
‘Out there,’ I told him.
We stood outside in the cold as he pulled down the shutters and locked up. Then I turned to go.
‘Wait,’ he said to me and went back into the shop.
The cold seeped back into my bones again as I waited. Watched the empty streets around me, thought of the night ahead in a doorway. The door to the shop opened and he returned. He thrust something under my arm with a nod: a carton of cigarettes, twelve full packs. This made me smile, the first time in months. Something to get me through the night.
There were hospitals along the way, places I seemed to gravitate to; one in Whitechapel, another in Elephant and Castle. Sometimes I simply loitered. Other times I asked for treatment, waited for hours to be seen for ailments both real and imagined.
In one hospital, near Westminster, I spent a week as a psychiatric ward in-patient. Here, medicated, sometimes forcibly, bits of sanity would creep into my consciousness, telling me: you’re not well. But once I was discharged, and off the medication, these rational thoughts quickly evaporated and I would return, quite gladly, to my life as a rough sleeper, to my delusions and hallucinations. Gladly, because to my confused mind it felt like a type of freedom.
Then I was in a train station in Basingstoke. I had sneaked onto a train in Waterloo; I had been wandering around the station to stay warm when the notion took hold of me to travel somewhere. Now I was on the platform of Basingstoke station, eighty kilometres from London. Too far to walk back, that was clear. I was stranded.
Somehow I had acquired a football, and now kicked it back and forth along the platform until, inevitably, it fell onto the tracks. When I went down to retrieve it a voice came over the Tannoy ordering me to desist. Quickly the police appeared: I was trespassing, I had no ticket, shouldn’t have been on the tracks anyway. Another police cell beckoned.
They packed me into the back of a police van. The officers were a man and a woman, and for some reason they smiled a lot. I could think of no reason to smile as I pictured what was ahead of me. I was so restless, so agitated, I was unable to tolerate incarceration even for a night.
But instead of bringing me to the police station they brought me to the local hospital. They must have seen something in me: that I was full not of badness, but of madness, and that I needed help, not punishment.
They left me sitting in an office in the hospital and I was examined, in sequence, by three doctors. They were in agreement: I was to be admitted, if I wanted. Their kindness must have got through to me, and as the alternative was to be brought to a police cell, I acquiesced. The officers left. The nurse found me a room in the psychiatric ward, a pleasant room, warm and cosy, and all my own. They gave me clean clothes, showed me around, let me walk the corridors when I wanted to. They made me feel safe. They fed me big meals of traditional English food with nursery puddings for dessert. They brought me to art therapy and I created paintings, the sessions calming me. For once, I didn’t rail against my confinement, I didn’t refuse my medications, I didn’t cause any problems. Now I fitted in, sat and smoked rollies, and chatted with the other patients.
A month passed. I was, in my opinion, better, my mind settled. And so I decided I wanted to leave.
I sat in the office again with the doctors. They explained to me that I had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, that I had suffered a manic episode leading to delusions, hallucinations and paranoia, and that they could help me manage the condition, if I allowed them to, now that I was stabilized.
They said: ‘You can go right now, if you want to, you are a voluntary admission. If you decide to stay, however, we can help you get better. But if you leave …’
The rest was left unspoken.
I was not yet as well as I thought I was. Some little part of me still clung to the madness and told me the world outside, the street, was the place to be. I wanted my freedom, the openness of the streets, the thrill and exuberance of mania.
But some bigger part of me must have started to return to the land of the sane. The period of rest, the food, the sleeping, the medication, all had been having an effect on me. Much as I wanted my freedom, some other thing appealed to me more: to be taken care of and made well, to understand and manage my condition, to no longer be mad.
And so at that critical moment in my life I had the choice of remaining there in the hospital and embracing sanity, or of returning to the street, to madness, and the life of a rough sleeper.
I chose to stay on.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 65, you may purchase the issue here.