Mile End Road, coming to an abrupt stop at the intersection of Cambridge Heath and Whitechapel, is so called because it’s exactly a mile from the City of London. I know this because Herman Harcourt told me so. But then in the same breath, he also said that he’d more than once walked the entire length of Mile End Road heel-to-toe and that it had seasonal variations, contracting seven feet in the winter. For weeks he’d been alarmed about the shortening, worried that maybe his feet were still growing, before arrving at this welcome revelation. Herman considered himself something of an amateur anthropologist of the East End, but he wasn’t always a reliable witness on account of his condition.
A not-so-contestable fact is that in London’s rush hour you’ll find at least one schizophrenic on every double-decker bus – that is statistically 1:100. This was one of the first things we learned in medical school in 1981.This, along with our tutor’s mantra that there was pathology all around us, and that we should pay close attention. ‘Think pathology; always be thinking pathology!’ But how do you get from pathos to pathology? And once you arrive, is there any way back? Although I didn’t frame the question like that at the time, a version of it haunted me throughout my first year as I made my way along the Mile End Road to Whitechapel each day, either on foot, Undergound, bus or bicycle, from my shared house in Bow. There was plenty of pathology on view – TB, bronchitis, tertiary syphilis and myriad mental illnesses. Of all the schizophrenics who joined the number 25 bus on that short stretch during rush hour, Herman Harcourt was the most frequent.
The first time I came across Herman there was something familiar about him. Exiting from Whitechapel station, I heard a loud and distinctive speaky-spokey, West Indian voice. As we squeezed past the ticket collector’s box and spilled out onto the pavement, above the sing-song tirade of stallholders, discounting fruit and veg, offering ‘Pound o’ bananas fifty. Pound o’ bananas fifty’, you could just make out that singularly Caribbean accent in the distance, shouting what sounded like ‘Knee grows occurs’.
His words were high-pitched; the man appeared to be hyperventilating. The gaps between his shrieks shortened until they merged into a prolonged awful-sounding howl. At the same time, all along the pavement, one cluster after another, the pedestrians began to part. Someone or something was coming and could not be stopped. People peeled away as if instructed. It all seemed bizarre; as surreally choreographed as those feathered showgirls on television in the black-and-white musicals I’d sat through on Saturday evenings, raising their plumes in sequence to reveal, finally, the tap-dancing stars in dinner jacket and sequined evening dress.
This particular Fred Astaire turned out to be Herman Harcourt. He thrust through the mass of people on that sweltering afternoon, wrapped in a heavy overcoat with a piece of cord pulled tightly around his waist and emerged just as I knew he would, in line with the onset of déjà vu, that elusive and uncanny feeling of events unfolding marginally ahead of your memory of them.
He was no more than fifty, but old enough to have been my father, and was obviously on the run, perhaps from a shopkeeper. In each hand he gripped numerous bulging plastic bags; they formed a ring around him as encumbering as any Victorian lady’s layer of petticoats and his voice became increasingly strident and urgent until what he was actually screaming became clear: ‘Negroes are cursed!’
This strange bagman was bearing down on me and I could move neither left nor right, backwards or forwards. I was gripped by a paralysis and a collision seemed inevitable. But somehow, with his plastic bags flapping at his side, Herman brushed past, so close there could not have been a piece of tissue paper between us; so close I caught a whiff of the fug of sweat and tobacco on his dirty overcoat.
He easily outpaced his pursuers, a man and woman in their forties. If he’d continued, he might have got away, but he suddenly stopped and began walking backwards, retracing his steps precisely and nervously, as if in a minefield. When he reached me, he put down his bags, bent over and picked up a cigarette butt, pinched it back into shape and shoved it into his coat pocket. That’s when they caught up and pounced. Not in a rough way; more like anxious parents who had lost their child in the crowd. I’ve often wondered why Herman stopped. It seemed such an odd thing to do. Everything might have turned out differently had he kept on going.
‘Don’t let them take me,’ Herman pleaded. ‘Please! They’re impostors. Don’t let them take me!’
By now the man had put Herman Harcourt in an armlock. ‘Do not be alarmed, he is harmless really,’ he said. ‘No need for alarm, is there Herman?’
‘Ah who you a-call Herman?’
‘I am just saying that you are harmless, are you not? I am paying you a compliment, Herman.’
‘Listen how the man call my name. Is so you call me name, in the street? In the street?!’
‘Now Herman,’ pleaded the man.
‘I know you?’
In the absence of anyone else foolish enough to slow down and pay attention to what was going on, Herman turned and confided to me: ‘Me nah know the man, you know.’
He scrutinised his captor, searching for clues, until he found that which confirmed his suspicions.
‘Look at his feet. Him an impostor. Didn’t I tell you? Him an impostor, man. Just look at his feet. You see any sock on the man feet?’
Though the man wore sensible black patent-leather shoes, Herman Harcourt was agitated and exercised over his absence of socks. I confess that I too thought it curious.
‘But Herman, you are not wearing socks either,’ said the man.
The news hit Herman hard. He trembled. Seconds passed, perhaps a minute before he steadied himself and was brave enough to look down. ‘Oh Lord dem gone with me socks!’
Herman’s anguish was pitiful, but the man seemed amused by the direction the conversation had taken. His laughing lips were held in check only by the vexed gaze of his colleague, who had a professional tenderness about her and a countenance more in keeping with a chaperone.
The setback with the socks was enough to remind Herman – how could he have forgotten? – that ‘Negroes are cursed!’ He repeated this endlessly, as if gamely trying a tongue-twister. ‘Negroes are cursed! Negroes are cursed!’ He broke free from the man’s grip. He turned and turned, not moving from the spot, like a child trying to make himself dizzy. Finally, he slumped. He couldn’t raise his suddenly heavy head; his chin rested on his chest.
The minders propped him up like cornermen to a boxer at the end of a bruising round. After some adjustment of positions (the choreography appeared to have been thought through), all three were ready to move off, not quite arm in arm but linked to such a degree that if one moved the others were bound to follow. Before they reached the corner, Herman turned back towards me. Would they allow him a word of advice to the young man? He didn’t wait for permission, but shuffled in my direction. His chaperones, loosening but not releasing their grip, snaked along with him.
‘In private, a word in private, if you please,’ he whispered.
The woman straightened the collar of Herman’s overcoat and smoothed the lapel with the back of her hand. ‘No more secrets. Remember? Who said that? Did you say it and not mean it? Was that you being insincere?’
Herman shook his head vigorously.
‘Good. So what is it you want to say?’
‘All I wanted to say to the young man . . .’ Herman began graciously, but almost immediately his tone hardened. ‘Because he looks like a decent young man, although looks can be deceiving. I wanted him to know, looking all smug and pleased with himself . . .’ He paused to jab a finger at me. ‘Brutus. Et tu, Brutus! I come not to praise him. He knows what he’s done. But I want to offer a word of advice, my friend. If they come for me in the morning, they’ll be coming for you in the afternoon.’
The chaperone squirmed as she tried to fashion some kind of apology. I thought to lessen her discomfort by saying to Herman that I had no idea what he was talking about. Except I’d met men such as Herman Harcourt throughout my young life. Yes, we Negroes were cursed, but I’d been schooled to break the spell; to confound expectations by exchanging the factory floor (which had been the lot of my parents) for medical school. That was the assumption that had been deeply invested in me. Perhaps it had once been invested in Herman too, but he had defaulted to that older, more persistent preconception of our limitations. If Negroes were cursed then men such as Herman were carriers of, and became, the virus. If he was the virus, I was the vaccine. The bagman’s presence though – his very being – mocked the notion that my contemporaries and I could escape the accursed path predetermined for the black man.
Herman’s eyes blazed with passionate intensity as he continued, with a note of compunction in his voice, ‘They’ll be coming for you in the afternoon. If not today, then tomorrow.’
‘We are the Ocean, you are the sea,’ chanted a group of lads as they joined the number 25 bus at Stepney. The Ocean, the name of their gang, referred to the Ocean Estate, which was made famous by the local R&B singer Leslie Charles, a Trinidadian immigrant who tipped his hat to the place he grew up by taking as his performing name: Billy Ocean.
‘We are the Ocean, you are the sea, sea, sea,’ they continued to chant. They were loud but harmless mostly, though I recognised one or two who were a menace to cyclists. It was always a risk to ride along Mile End Road as the schools got out. Kids from the Ocean would wait at the bus stop to shower any ‘middle-class bike-riding wanker’ with gobs of spit as they passed by.
Thankfully they didn’t recognise me off the bike. My medical-student eyes were in a steady state of readiness, on the lookout for individual forms of pathology. I clocked a schizophrenic as soon as he got on at the next stop. Black and older than average, he shuffled along like a child in his father’s slippers. He stepped through the doors in the middle of an intense conversation, although he had no companion. A new idea seemed to come to him with every breath. I had the feeling that he was trying urgently to exhale unpleasant thoughts. He breathed in, he breathed out. He breathed in . . . He started to flounder. His arms flapped. He spun around. ‘Please, somebody. Help. I can’t . . . I can’t breathe.’
No help arrived, but eventually the hyperventilation subsided. It was difficult to ‘read’ what was going on. The man’s face was obscured by sunglasses and a huge floppy cap (the type worn by Rastas) though he seemed to have little hair. Trapped food had dried on the beginnings of a beard.
People moved back into their seats, further than was necessary, drawing their coats more tightly around them as he moved down the aisle. The pall of lost ambition, suggested by his clumsy oversized jacket and stiff, stained trousers in need of a wash, was communicated even more fiercely in the assembly of plastic bags containing the detritus of life – books, rags, clothing and sandwiches that were turning green – that he gripped in each hand. He was followed down the aisle by a small-boned builder, his face cracked and speckled with plaster. The builder stared disapprovingly as the schizophrenic took occupancy of a pair of seats.
‘Not too clever, is it, mate?’
It’d been a long day and he’d had to put up with enough shit already, thank you, and he was minded to exert his native right to a seat in his own fucking country. He pushed aside the schizophrenic’s bags. He didn’t care if the brown brother stank worse than rancid Gorgonzola or that there were fossilised woodlice in his turn-ups. He was going to take his birthright, what his grandfather fought Hitler for: a seat, mate, all the fucking way to Aldgate.
The schizophrenic moved out of the seat to make room for him. Through the sunglasses his searching eyes caught mine and before I could look away he had worked his way to the seat beside me. In a sea of miserable faces, my determinedly neutral expression must have seemed comforting, not to mention my colour. It was only then that I recognised him, yet he seemed unaware of who I was.
‘Countryman, how far this bus reach?’ he asked.
It was hard to believe that this was the same man I’d met the week before; astonishing that he could have deteriorated so much and so fast. Everything about him repelled, but more than that I was acutely aware of his colour – black like me, and wished he wasn’t. For a moment I contemplated speaking French and feigning ignorance of English, but faltered at the end.
‘Where are you heading?’ I whispered.
‘Port of Spain. That’s Trinidad,’ he added.
‘Are you kidding?’ I smiled.
‘It look like I joke to you? It seem say it a joke?’
There was no mistaking his seriousness. ‘No, no,’ I answered. ‘You look deadly earnest.’
‘But wait!’ He pulled up smartly and said, ever so slowly, ‘Ernest my middle name.’
‘I’m sure it is, Herman.’
‘What the rass! How you know my name?’
It was then that I decided that I couldn’t stay in the conversation any longer. I stood up, inched past him and pulled the string cord overhead to signal to the driver that I needed to get off at the next stop.
‘We are the Ocean, you are the sea!’ The gang renewed their chant.
The chanting caught Herman’s attention. He looked up from smoothing his plastic bags.
‘Noooo,’ he smiled. ‘It’s “that was the river, this is the sea”, isn’t it?’
The gang stopped their chant. One of the members peeled away and moved down the aisle, pointing towards Herman. ‘Cunt!’ he said, and the others took the cue for this new chant. ‘Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!’
The bus pulled up at the next stop and I disembarked at Stepney Green without giving enough thought to what might happen next. Some of the gang were black, so Herman should have been all right. But for about five minutes I didn’t turn round, not for fear that Herman had followed me, but out of worry that he hadn’t; that he was still on the bus with the Ocean.
‘Before we start,’ said the patient. ‘Just one t’ing. I not gwan have your finger up me arse.’
The doctor looked up from his desk, closing one unwieldy bundle of notes and opening another. ‘Ah, good morning, Mr Harcourt.’
‘Promise!’ said Herman. He was sickly, thin, with a scruffier beard than when we’d last met. I was less sure of how old he might be as he was one of those men whose body had resisted middle age and was only now beginning to turn. His brown skin was younger than his years; smooth except for a line of suspicion that marked the brow of a hyper-expressive face, fit for a mime artist. ‘Say it, say it or write it down,’ barked Herman. ‘I will not poke me finger up Mr Harcourt arse.’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t think that’ll be necessary,’ the doctor assured.
‘Now Herman . . .’ Dr Gordon half turned to me. There was the faintest suggestion of a raised eyebrow. He flicked through his notes attempting, but not quite managing, to disguise his boredom. There was a forced quality to the action; more, I felt, for the appearance of thoroughness than the expectation of some sudden insight.
‘So Mr Harcourt, what can I do for you today?’
Mr Harcourt’s mind was elsewhere. He had only just noticed me, and he looked alarmed.
‘This is . . . What was your name again?’ asked Dr Gordon.
‘Grant,’ I said.
‘Grant, that’s right. This is Grant from the medical school. He’ll been sitting in on the surgery for a few days.’
‘A junior doctor?’
‘Yes, a medical student. A first-year medical student, actually. Rather unusual. Don’t ordinarily let them loose on the public so early. We’re privileged. Young Grant here must be something special.’
I had become accustomed to the admiration of black people whenever they heard of my beautiful career and I was quite skilled at adjusting my expression to evince the appropriate degree of racial pride and humility. But Herman looked incredulous, even hostile. Nothing in his eyes suggested that he recognised me. He lifted his chin and spoke in a jumble of words that appeared to be from a made-up African language or an approximation of one. Dr Gordon just about managed to suppress a smile, and encouraged his patient to sit down. After a while, keeping the full beam of his eyes fixed on me, Herman reached out, gripped the edge of the chair and worked his way into the seat.
‘Have you check him paper qualification?’ Herman asked, cupping his mouth with his hand, before whispering to Dr Gordon, ‘You know what them like. Could-a pick it up at Brixton Market.’
I waited for Dr Gordon to intercede, but he merely smiled the way a dog owner might do when their pet jumps up at you. There was also the possibility that he felt it was an argument between two black people and that he was disqualified from intervening.
My doubts about Dr Gordon had surfaced that morning, starting with the red Porsche parked outside. This was not Knightsbridge; this was Bromley-by-Bow. He might have been forgiven the signet ring worn on the little finger of his right hand and the manicured fingernails, but the Porsche seemed a vulgar display of wealth in such a poor area.
I should have stood up for myself, but in the midst of arranging the sentences in my head, Herman was given a plastic pot and asked to produce a sample of urine, and instead of retiring to the toilets he simply pulled out his penis and filled the pot. Even after nearly six months at medical school, that fell outside the spectrum of what we had come to expect. And yet again Dr Gordon reacted as if it were no more unexpected than a dog cocking his leg at a tree.
I did little to disguise my abhorrence. I like to think it signalled one of those moments of forfeiture when the brother ‘tek the shame’. But I couldn’t really be sure that anything had passed between us because Herman only had eyes for Dr Gordon. It was apparent that he’d been in and around hospitals over the years. He laid before the doctor a catalogue of ailments in just such a manner as I had seen and heard senior registrars do when summarising a patient’s condition to the consultant on a ward round. Using language that was both precise and highfalutin, he spoke with the relish of a man who has been starved of intellectual company.
My scalp began to itch. I had the peculiar sensation that Herman, though speaking to the GP, was actually addressing me; that there were hidden messages that would be undetected by Dr Gordon; that it was a form of code black people adopted when white people were present.
I hadn’t heard Herman articulate a specific complaint other than that he wasn’t feeling right. ‘Something is wrong’ was as far as he was able, or prepared, to venture when asked, and yet the GP was already scribbling on a prescription form and ticking boxes on it.
Herman didn’t answer.
‘When was the last time you worked?’
‘I haven’t worked for the past . . .’ Herman broke off and then continued, ‘I’m not working for the past, I’m working towards the future.’
Dr Gordon laughed, thought about it again and laughed some more. He tore the prescription note from the pad in a single unbroken movement that brought to mind someone peeling a plaster from a healed cut. He held out the note for Herman and, for the first time all morning, the doctor smiled with conviction. ‘Don’t let the buggers grind you down.’
Herman still wouldn’t look my way as he prepared to leave and I, equally, couldn’t bring myself to look at him. But just before he reached the door, he turned and mumbled some more Africanesque at me; then he was gone.
‘Quite the scholar, our Herman,’ said Dr Gordon, clicking the top back on his fountain pen after finishing up the notes. I had thought so too, in the way he’d used a battery of words – ‘distempered’, ‘dyspeptic’, ‘ennui’ and ‘egress’ – that were then unfamiliar to me.
‘Yes, he certainly has a big vocabulary,’ I agreed.
‘No, I mean literally. A linguist, I think. Hence the Kiswahili. He has a PhD.’
‘A PhD?’ I immediately regretted the incredulity in my voice.
‘Unless he bought it at Brixton Market. Ha ha ha! But no,
Dr Herman Harcourt used to be a university lecturer. Pitiful really.’
I could hear a stream of Kiswahili now on the other side of the wall, but not consistently so. The Kiswahili morphed into Jamaican patois and then back again. What had puzzled me before about Herman’s accent was how it ranged around the Caribbean islands. It wasn’t specific. What Dr Gordon said now made sense. There was a performative quality to Herman’s speech; a kind of playful ventriloquism. But whether it was Kiswahili, Jamaican or Trinidadian, there was no mistaking the bite of argument and irritation in his haranguing conversation with the receptionist next door. The receptionist wanted him to move on; he was reluctant to leave. When Dr Gordon asked me to find out what was going on, I had a sense that Herman was playing for time and actually waiting for me.
In truth, I’d have liked to have gone to him and drawn up a couple of chairs so that we could sit and talk softly. I’d have apologised for abandoning him to his fate on the number 25 bus the week before; I’d have confessed that when I observed him closely I had the queer feeling of looking into a mirror of the projected future, of perhaps seeing how easily his fall could be a rehearsal for my own. I said none of these things.
The traffic was backed up to the east all along the road just past Brick Lane, close to Aldgate East Undergound station. Motorists leaned out of driver-side windows, craning their necks to try to see what the hell was going on. Three police cars approached the Tube station, surrounding a bus which appeared to have broken down; more police cars were arriving – with their sirens blaring – inching their way past the stationary traffic. The passengers spilled out from the bus onto the pavement. The driver stepped out too and, bizarrely, seconds later the doors closed behind him and the bus lurched forward.
I struggled to get through the mass of people blocking the entrance to the station. Such was the density that for more minutes than I was comfortable with I couldn’t move at all. Without my prompting, one of the passengers said, ‘Some loon trying to get to Trinidad or somewhere. I dunno. Daft bugger’s gone and hijacked the bus.’
But the hijacking was cut short that instant when half a dozen policemen stormed the bus. Seconds later a couple of officers got off the 25 with a wild-eyed black man who was armlocked between them. An ironic cheer went up from the people on the pavement. I pressed on through the melee, determined not to look back towards the bus, and eventually broke free from the crowd into the atrium of the Tube station. As I descended the steps into the bowels of the station, I heard the hijacker cry out, ‘I know that man! I know that man!’
Built originally as a workhouse in the nineteenth century, St Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital had a twelve-foot-high perimeter wall and a heavy wrought-iron gate as a further safeguard against escape.
I had been assigned to ‘special’, that is to look after just one patient; to act almost as a ‘professional friend or chaperone’. The patient had been sectioned months before (the term of his legally binding involuntary incarceration had expired), but he’d since developed anxiety about leaving the grounds of the hospital, even about leaving the ward. I was unsurprised to learn the name of the patient. It had begun to seem as if some irresistible outside force was pulling us together.
Herman Harcourt slept soundly in a high bed, covered from head to toe in a single white sheet, shrouded like a mummy. I sat beside the bed and waited for him to wake. A ward porter, a fellow Caribbean kinsman, looked in on the room and, seeing my black face, sidled up to me and burped through Guinness breath, ‘Poor man drug up to him eyeball.’
In our previous encounters, Herman had appeared to be continually on the move. Sleep, even if enforced through medication, must surely have come as a release from that febrile state.
An hour passed and I could not resist the temptation to gently pull back the top of the sheet to confirm that it was indeed Herman. Even as he slept I glimpsed, as I had on that first occasion at Whitechapel almost a year before, the air of a man in exile or retreat from himself, and one who was not yet fully cognisant of the fact. After another hour he began to stir.
‘I didn’t think you were ever going to wake up,’ I said.
Herman yawned, shedding the residue of sleep. ‘Man nah dead; coffin nah sell.’ His eyes swept round the room. Saliva had been pouring from the edges of his mouth. I reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to him.
‘You’re giving me this?’ He began to cry. Tears of appreciation streamed down his cheeks. ‘You’re really giving this to me?’
The door to the dormitory was half ajar and he asked me to close it. When I returned to his bedside, he was beaming.
‘Man I knew you’d come.’
‘How did you get in?’ he whispered. ‘What’s the plan?’
I told him that he was confused; that I probably wasn’t who he thought I was.
‘Of course,’ said Herman. ‘I get it.’ He put his index finger to his lips. ‘Shhhhh, we mustn’t let on. You’re a stranger to me.’
‘I am a stranger to you.’
‘Yes man, me understood. So what’s the plan? You give a sign or signal? I wait for the signal?’
After a while I managed (and this would be the case in subsequent weeks in Herman’s company) to turn the argument. I suggested we go for a walk where he could clear his thoughts; it was to be the first of many, designed progressively to wean him back into society, to overcome his agoraphobia. On day one we walked out of the grounds down Mile End Road for a hundred yards and then returned to St Clement’s. On day two we doubled the distance, and on day three we trebled it.
At first I was, I confess, embarrassed to walk with him, especially after being instructed by the ward sister to link arms in case he was suddenly overcome by an urge to run off. In many of the shops Herman’s reputation for soliciting credit and reneging on payment preceded him. Whenever we approached a grocer’s, tobacconist’s or off-licence, Herman agitated to switch sides so that he could be closer to the road and buffered by me if he was spotted by one of the irate and unforgiving shopkeepers.
In walking with Herman along Mile End Road it was possible to gauge the stages of his pathology through the landscape. From Grove Road west to Cambridge Heath, I logged the scholarship boy’s ruined ambition: the Underground station where his voice gave out when he was desperately trying to busk; the crossroads by the oval synagogue where he caused a massive blockade by standing in the middle of the street to direct the traffic; the Radio Rentals store where he had begged for the first time from a startled young black man who placed a coin in his hand.
My initial reluctance to be associated with Herman stemmed from his lamentable condition. It served as a reminder of my own frailties and the pressure I felt to stick to and stay on the course at medical school, even as evidence came daily that I was unsuited to it; to reward my family’s considerable investments (emotional and financial) in me. The yearning to flee from that responsibility was near constant. Herman had clearly escaped his own familial expectations by taking flight into madness.
With time I found myself looking forward to our promenades and peculiar conversations, often punctuated by lucid intervals when Herman cast me as the son he never had, a son who might learn from his wisdom and mistakes. And slowly my outlook began to shift from ‘thinking pathology’ to considering the pathos of Herman’s predicament – though he would have rounded on me (‘Save your tears for the deserving,’ he’d say) if ever I nudged the conversation towards any expression of pity or compassion.
One late afternoon, spying an acquaintance in the distance whom he was keen to avoid, we took a detour from our normal route and ended up on a back street in Stepney Green where Herman had a council flat. He still had a key and persuaded me to make a pit stop to gather a few possessions. We had to force ourselves in past piles of unwashed clothes and half-eaten plates of furry and crusted food. I could only speculate about the unhygienic awfulness of the toilet because Herman was adamant that it was out of order. Then, having gathered a bundle of shirts and trousers from the flat, and despite my protestations that we were already late for returning to St Clement’s, Herman refused to leave. When I asked him when he would be ready, he answered, ‘Never.’
Here was the moment I had always feared when accompanying Herman – a shearing away from our shared reality and a turn towards an interim state that might lead to a florid psychosis. That ‘never’ seemed to come from somewhere and someone else. Almost in the same breath Herman beckoned me over to the bed to help him lift the mattress. Underneath were a slew of dirty magazines. That was to be expected, but in between the copies of Men Only and Penthouse were clumps of ten- and twenty-pound notes. As I lifted the mattress, Herman swept them all into a plastic bag. There must have been several thousand pounds.
I should have jumped in and said something, anything. In my stupefaction, Herman laid out the most ridiculous plan, fuelled by a mania that suggested his mood-regulating medication was wearing off. He could not return to the hospital. To go back was to confine himself to loss, to no life; he would never be considered sane again. The only sensible course of action would be to take the money and fly back to Antigua (wasn’t that just brilliant?) from where he had arrived thirty-five years before. It made perfect sense, didn’t it? And I could go back with him; yes, we’d be fellow travellers. In any event, we could discuss the details en route, on the bus, the Underground and the plane. We had to get to Heathrow fast before his/our absence was detected – because we were in this together now and there was no going back. None whatsoever. There was no time to lose.
Herman was out the front door before I could process any of what he was saying. I followed lamely in a daze as he made his way to the Underground, first onto the District Line and then changing to the Circle. We spoke non-stop; but I was aware that I argued unconvincingly because some part of me was attracted to the folly, to the roll of the dice, to jacking it all in and not answering to anyone.
Round and round we went on the Circle Line, perhaps three times before the realisation, like a cold snap in the pit of the stomach, began to sink in that all this talk was madness.
‘Is this it?’ Herman asked every few stops. I shook my head and brushed away the tears that were in danger of coming. Somehow, after yet another circumnavigation of the Circle Line and then back onto the District Line, I managed to convince Herman that we’d arrived at the stop for Heathrow and not in fact at Mile End. ‘Quick time, quick time,’ I encouraged Herman as we hurried off the carriage and out of the Underground. It was only when we emerged onto the street that Herman understood my treachery. ‘Negroes are cursed!’ he screamed. ‘Negroes are cursed!’ He fled before I could lock arms with him.
He moved with surprising speed, shuffling along quickly with short steps. Just a few hundred yards away, though, he pulled up abruptly. He seemed unconvinced. Having made too good a job of his escape, he now looked worried that he’d not be caught. Amid the roar of traffic, Herman hesitated. He’d have been swept up into the air by the wind if there was any; he could go neither forwards nor backwards. He froze in front of a street lamp. It was dusk and the lamplight began to fail, to give out – on, off, on, off . . . He tried to work out the sequence of the code. He counted the beats between each glink. But no matter how hard Herman willed the sequence to continue, the lapse between each surge of light grew longer until the street lamp finally, stubbornly, refused to restart, its message left incomplete.
I caught up with him and led him towards the hospital. He recoiled, pulling against me (‘Merciful Lord, help!’), but really he put up limited resistance and quickly gave in to the inevitable, surrendered as he knew he must, as he so often had, to the greater will, to the allure of someone with a clearer sense of the way ahead.
Photograph courtesy of the author
Colin Grant and medical student friends on the eve of their college ball, 1981