The children were at football practice till two and I was at the mental hospital, visiting Ryan. My chair was plastic and the curve dug into my spine. The tables were green and the chairs varied between purple and orange. The walls were grey and white. The place looked like a community centre, or the staffroom of some trendy but low on cash start-up. There was even a ping-pong table in the corner. As I waited for Ryan, I watched two other patients I’d seen before hitting the ball back and forth with their paddles, the bounces ticking away the seconds. After some time, one managed to best the other with a shot that burst up off the corner and bounced away toward the sink. Watching the two players search made me feel uncertain and strange. I took a deep breath and remembered who I was.
It was during this brief collapse that Ryan appeared in the doorway between this room and the patient dormitories. Like me, but wilder. Bearded where I was shaven, hair dangling where mine was cut, wrinkles along his skin suggesting more years than my own, even if in reality I was two minutes older. He was in a yellow button-up shirt and sea-blue denim jeans and he was smiling.
‘Eric! Did you bring them? The jelly here is fucking abysmal,’ he said, spread his arms wide.
I took a pack of Haribo from my pocket and threw it to him. He caught it with one hand as the ping-pong ball resumed the bouncing and the players battled for another point.
‘Not a moment too soon,’ he said. ‘My blood sugar’s dangerously low.’
‘The price has gone up,’ I said dully. ‘It’s the new tax.’
Ryan grinned. ‘Good thing you’re buying.’
Pulling up a purple chair, Ryan sat down across from me and slapped the Haribo down on the table. The smile stayed, twitched, fell for a moment and then resumed.
‘Here, Eric, give me a hand,’ he said, his voice a little lower. ‘Why am I here again?’
‘Well, I’ve had all these counsellors and nurses and things, lovely people, really genuinely brilliant, and they keep saying, what with the reason you’re here, and as you know, what’s brought you here, and you know why you’re here but the truth is I really can’t fucking remember. But they’re all so nice I just nod along and say, of course. But really, if I’m going to make the progress they and I wanted me to make, I’m going to need to know what I’m progressing from.’
Ryan was looking at me with the same expression he used when we were children and he wanted assistance in some illicit activity.
‘I’ve asked a few times,’ he said. ‘And then I forget again. I’m worried they’ll think I’m taking the piss. I’m worried they’ll get angry.’
I let out a weary sigh. Ryan look guiltily at his feet. ‘They’re here to help. I can tell you, but you’ll forget and then you’ll have to ask them anyway.’
Ryan shook his head slowly as he spoke. ‘No way. Absolutely not. I’ll remember it this time. I’ll remember it all.’
I thought about reaching my arm out. Instead, I tucked my hands into the corresponding pockets of my jeans.
‘First you thought Karen was trying to kill you. That was the voices again. You hit her, twice. Then you thought you could hear a Beatles concert at the old Social Club. We found you there at two in the morning, singing ‘Paperback Writer’ at a brick wall.’
There was a pause then, and I thought Ryan might be about to fall into one of his silences, but he drummed his fingers along the table and grinned again.
‘Got any fags, Eric?’ he said. ‘I’m dying for one.’
‘You’ve not even touched your sweets.’
‘Piss off.’ He slapped the table and laughed. ‘I want sweets when I want sweets and fags when I want fags. And I want a fag. And I know you still smoke them, I’m not as gullible as your fucking missus.’
We stood in the square, there wasn’t an inch of shade and the sun was hot. We were sweating, my shirt itched at my skin. Bean bags and a football kept us company. There were no plants but it looked nice, and I thought not for the first time that this was not such a bad place to end up after the sort of struggles Ryan had been through. Sometimes, after an argument with Sally or a particularly trying day with the kids, I would fantasise about getting sectioned, having a wonderful, explosive, untranslatable breakdown that resulted in my isolation from all of the world’s external factors. I’d think of Ryan and our genetic identicalness. Then I’d straighten my tie or take a deep breath or go for a drive and things would settle back down.
‘You still smoke straights.’ Ryan shook his head and popped the fag in his mouth. ‘If there were ever a loser with too much money to burn.’
I laughed politely and we smoked in the quiet for a while. I thought about taking my blazer off and decided not to. I wanted to keep as many layers between this place and myself as I could. As many between myself and Ryan, too.
‘Is she OK?’ he said. ‘Karen, I mean.’
‘Stitches,’ I said. ‘And her left eye is quite puffed up. But she’ll be alright. The doctor said she was lucky.’
‘I really wish I hadn’t hit her,’ he said. ‘This would all be alright if I hadn’t hit her.’
‘It’s not the first time it’s happened.’
Ryan dragged his feet along the gravel and looked up at the sky. ‘Yeah, well that’s it. If I’d stopped hitting her, I’d have that at least. I could say, it doesn’t matter how crazy and confused I get, how convinced I am that my eyes are seeing something different to what they’re actually seeing, I don’t hit my wife. That is the decent thing I do.’
‘You mean that’s the indecent thing you don’t do.’
He looked at me then and I knew I’d hurt him. It gave me a brief thrill, like guessing the right coordinates in Battleships. I stared across the yard and pretended not to notice.
‘Yeah,’ he said. The sound of his trainers against gravel filled the silence till he spoke again. ‘How did you manage it, Eric? How did you manage to get away with a normal life?’
I sighed and watched the cigarette burn, watched it shorten in the summer light. ‘You know it’s more complicated than that.’
‘That’s what everybody says to me,’ said Ryan, throwing his stub onto the ground and crushing it with his booth. ‘We’re different, Eric. We’re the same.’
‘You’re not going into all that psychic crap, are you?’
Ryan looked at me again and this time his gaze burnt so strongly I had to look him in his wide, sleep-deprived eyes. ‘You’re always ducking and dodging. Just speak to me, please.’
There was quiet again for a good while. I thought about making an excuse and saying goodbye.
‘You were like a series of warning signs in my life,’ I said. ‘That’s why I turned out so different. Every urge I have that tells me to disobey, to let life break me apart, to just collapse, I know those are the same urges you hear when you do the shit that you do. Right from that first time when we were teenagers and you didn’t go to school for a week because you thought the teachers would kill you. You were like a warning light. You were the thing that stopped me becoming you.’
It made me feel like a real man when he bowed his head and said nothing, like a king slaying a pretender. I felt a quiet longing for Sally and my homely bed.
‘Thanks,’ said Ryan. He turned and went inside and the real silence began.
We sat down at the same seats on the same table. His head was pointing towards his shoes.
‘What you up to later in the evening?’ I said. ‘The nurse told me there’s a board game night.’
Ryan nodded slightly.
‘You should go along. You’ll find a way to cheat them out of something, you always do. Do you remember when we went to Lyme Regis with Mum and Dad?’ I warped my lips into a fat, fake smile. ‘We must’ve been, what, fifteen? I was meant to be taking that girl out, the one who worked at the ice cream stand. You managed to win all my money off me just before I left, every quid I had, and you wouldn’t even lend me any. And I’d promised to take her to the pictures, but instead I took her fossil hunting, only she’d lived in Lyme Regis all her life, she didn’t give a shit about any dinosaur bodies, particularly the kind you can get in charity shops for fifty pence. So that went as badly as it could, and then the next day you took her out for a cream soda and I caught you snogging her with your hand up her jumper sitting on the edge of the Cobb.’
Ryan kept staring and saying nothing, so I decided to speak honestly once again.
‘You should’ve been so much better than me, mate,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’m getting at. You were a sweet-talker, you were smart, you were funny. I’m none of those things, I’m a total phoney. But you, you’re real. Karen will never leave you, it makes me sick. She is wholly aware that you are a tragic figure and to be with you is to become part of a tragic cycle that will be forever repeating itself. You should’ve been more than this. That’s why you’re beautiful.’
He didn’t reply. I looked up at the ceiling and then at my watch. There were only a few minutes till visiting hours were finished, so I decided to stay with him till the end. Looking across to the next table I saw two teenage girls chatting. The tall thin girl looked like my daughter in the face, the same eyes and nose. Noticing this, I felt fear. Across from her was a girl with short, blue hair, who was smiling and nodding and holding the other girl’s hand.
‘And I just feel like I’m really finding my feet again,’ said the thin girl. ‘Like when I get out of here, I might actually be able to control everything. That’s the main thing I’ve learnt. In this place, they take things out of your control, but they tell you that if you’re going to be OK you have to be able to take on that control. But I’m eating again. I put on weight, Erin!’
‘That’s fantastic,’ said the girl with the blue hair. ‘I’m so proud. I miss you.’
‘I miss you too,’ said the thin girl, but I could tell she was wanting to get at something bigger than all that, and I felt like I had to listen, that I could understand. ‘It’s like, seeing everyone here, and, you know, I am the youngest. By quite a lot, actually. There have been a few others around my age, but I’m definitely the youngest long term stay, if that makes sense.’
‘That must be hard,’ said the girl with the blue hair. Involuntarily, I shook my head.
‘No, it’s not. Because I look at them and I think, no, I don’t want that. And I like these people, they’re sweet and good and they make me remember that I could be sweet and good but that being sweet and good is irrelevant to staying afloat, to staying OK. And knowing they’re two different things. I don’t know. It feels like knowing that helps with both.’
It wasn’t long after that when the nurse came out and told us all to finish our conversations and go home. I told Ryan I’d visit again next week, that we all missed him, and that I loved him. He nodded at the last bit, which seemed to mean something. I watched him move towards the doorway into the dormitories, saw the thin girl greet him by his name, saw him nod back. I picked up the kids, came home, kissed Sally and spent the rest of the evening wondering about the things I’d built around me. I thought about the thin girl. I was sure if she could live like me she’d be happy. I could see her standing tall amongst my two tiny children, smiling with closed lips, watching over them. She and I could be tall together. Then I watched my children playing in the garden, pretending to fly, and I wondered briefly if I was happy.
© Alex Hubbard
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Alex’s interview]