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Like a Green Firework
By Tom Watts, Feb 07, 2008

Lewis and me are smoking and talking, enjoying the sunshine and the little bit of time we have to ourselves outside. That’s the catch with clinics. There’s always someone watching you, there’s always some therapy to go to, and if you miss dinner because - damn it - you weren’t hungry, the canteen tells the nurse, who tells the head nurse, who tells a doctor, who tells a therapist - and it’s all written down in your notes - then before you know it someone is asking you, “Hey, what’s up?”

They’re good at getting to you, but I can hold my own. They tell you, “Hey, you have a mental illness,” you deny it, and like the table-tennis, it goes back and forth until you start to wonder, Hey, maybe this is the reason why I live my life a little wayward. I can’t deal with this kind of nonsense. You have to be strong in these sorts of places.

I had always been maintaining absolute sanity whenever in any kind of therapy, but this time I’m finding the going tough. Dr. Cowley just smiles at you and in a calm voice and says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” or something like, “Addiction is a disease.” In their heart of hearts I am a grade A, hundred-percent, nut job. Now, I can speak for me, but I can’t speak for Lewis and maybe he is as nutty as a bag of squirrels - I don’t know - but when he had been here a week and was allowed his hour alone in the outside world, he went to the high street and bought some magazines, a toothbrush and three raw cabbages. That’s not what I would have bought had I had the hour or the choice, but like I said I can’t speak for Lewis. Lewis read the magazines and put the cabbages in the communal fridge and that’s where they stayed.

It is the hottest day of May so far and Lewis and me are on the step overlooking the small strip of lawn that lies down one side of the clinic. It has a chest high wall built along the longest side that makes it feel a little private, something that me and Lewis both agree is hard to find in a facility such as this one. On the other side of the lawn is the clinic itself and a door that leads into the smoking area, and the games room. The games room has paintings by patients stuck all over the walls and a ping-pong table planted in the middle. Lewis and me can’t figure out why they have such an amazingly fast game in a building full of such heavily medicated people. When I first got here I couldn’t follow the ball for shit. Every game I watched I seemed to be looking where the ball had been ten seconds before.

The sun is laying warm clean towels on my face as I sit there on the step thinking of nothing but the seconds dripping by. I shut my eyes. I can’t see where the sun is, but I know by the reddy-pink glow as my eyelids become warm orange tracing paper laid over my eyeballs, in which direction the sun is in the sky. It feels so good to just sit in the sun with my eyes closed and let it all just fall onto me. I don’t want to be here. At night I feel desperate. The night shift of animals in my head and my thawing bones spit and snarl until I shuffle downstairs in my pyjamas to be comforted by the night shift of nurses and sent back to bed with a pill. Once, while trying to watch the television, an Asian nurse rubbed my back whilst I shook and shuddered. Nobody touches you in there. That moving hand felt like a blanket.

When I first met Lewis he had been here for a week and he was pretty shaky. On his first night they had to hold him down like a big fish trying to jump out of the boat, flipping and fighting for a counterpoint to launch off. They said he was convulsing and vomiting yellow foam. He was a big man and a big drinker. He would drink vodka by the litre - or if he were being honest with you, anything he could find by the litre.

Lewis is a little unhinged. The first time I talked to him he was sitting drinking coffee in the smoking room, with an ashtray half full of dead filters, reading a book on the history of the Russian Gulags. He told me he was thinking of shaving his head and never getting dressed again, just staying in his pyjamas. Then he drew me a map of his mind on the back of the dispensary timetable. I lit his cigarette for him, staring at the strange lines, that he swore made up his mind, as he drew them. I can’t remember much of it, but I think ‘bath time’ was connected to ‘mixers, like tonic.’ It looked like a pile of old Christmas lights.

“You ever getting dressed?” I asked Lewis.

“What? Oh, the pyjamas. Yeah, I feel solidarity with the Gulag inmates.”

“Why?”

“You know, in here, we can’t get out too,” he said.

“You can leave anytime you want to, Lewis. This is voluntary.”

“Can I, can I really? If I go outside I’m on my own against myself. I’ll drink and I’ll die. I’m stuck in here and so are you, so shut up.”

“Lewis, calm down and have a coffee,” I said. We’re swimming in coffee in this hospital. It’s benign compared to what people used to do, but it still seems funny to me. Agitated people need no added stimulation. That’s just common sense to me. That was the first time I met Lewis.

Outside on the step we are smoking and talking for a while before my mind begins to drift. Sometimes I feel like I am in an airport departure lounge in this clinic. It feels placeless, and timeless, like I have just arrived from somewhere far away, or am about to leave for another continent, but where I am now could be anywhere, any place, the time zones irrelevant.

My mind wonders until it settles on an image from the past: me bowling. I used to play before all of this, and I was good. I let my mind roll around until it reminds me of the plastic pins from the skittles set in the table-tennis room. But the set is missing a ball. Then I think of the cabbages just sitting in the communal fridge doing nothing. Then I look across the lawn at the thin concrete path running through it and put out my cigarette.

The cabbage explodes as it rolls on the rough concrete, leaves shredding off into the air like a green firework, knocking all the pins over. Lewis is hopping from one foot to the other like a monkey, so excited, screaming, “Steeee-rike, do it again, do it again!” I’m giggling and snot is coming out of one nostril as I run to get what is left of the cabbage. I’m not looking where I am going and bump smack into Dr. Cowley. He doesn’t say a word. He just surveys the scene, the cabbage leaves everywhere, the pins, Lewis’s monkey dance, and the snot on my face. Then he just looks at me with a small smile and calm eyes, turns around and walks away.

Tom Watts lives in the joyous teen-gang filled streets of south London.

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