All the Wee Fishes
A voice on radio announced a record high in the number of suicide calls to the Samaritans. If the dim and yellowish light of recent days had anything to do with it, I fully understood. The rain racing in lanes across the windowpane was mesmerising, as though someone was blowing streaks with a straw. It triggered a memory from childhood of tears stretching across the faces of women battered by hail and cold winds as they queued outside the bashed pies and pastries shop in Bridgeton. They were not real tears, but they seemed real enough to me.
The Song of the Clyde burst its banks. I hit the off button but was too late; Radio Scotland let it flood my brain where it stuck in a perpetual loop of torment. Oh, the River Clyde, the won-der-ful Clyde, fills me and thrills me and kills me with pride. I could never remember the right words or forget the wrong ones, far less the ever-maddening melody, though this did not diminish the fascination from my earliest years for the Clyde itself. Every child wanted the Clyde to be an extension of their playground – to jump in and swim and splash and do boat things – but it didn’t smell too healthy, and the treacherous currents were well known. I heard about many deaths in the Clyde, deliberate and accidental, and by the time I was seventeen there had been three that were close – four if you count Gordon.
Sometime in the 1970s in their basement flat in Hyndland Road, Neil and Alice spent an evening predicting the future of their guests through musings on the sorcery of isopsephy and numerological divination. It didn’t bode well: the bleak prophecy was we would die in our sleep, (never again would I say I was dead sleepy). When at last I returned through the dark and deserted night to my room in University Avenue I found Gordon lying dead. The Glasgow summer evidently ended earlier that evening and winter arrived like a door slamming shut – the window, unfortunately, was not shut and the cold night air killed him. I tried whistling air down his throat and pressing his chest gently with my thumb, then pulled back his top lip, but couldn’t detect the slightest breath; yet he looked remarkably healthy – pink gums and Hollywood-white teeth. In the end I called it, and all heroic measures ceased. The next day I put Gordon snugly in a box and after a few thoughts let him slip into the Clyde near my old school at Ropework Lane. The coffin was carried along in the choppy waters for a while then sank. Later, I met someone from Neil and Alice’s supernatural evening and told him what happened. After a jaw-pulling pause involving some painful effort of thinking, he said, “Wait a minute, don’t hamsters hibernate?” In that pre-Google Dark Age I failed to question his speculation about hamster hibernation, and for some years blamed myself for drowning Gordon during his winter kip.
My young nephew had difficulty articulating the name Gordon – it came out as Godin – and when I told him he had died, he asked “Is Godin heaven?” I said “No, he’s in the Clyde”.
The River Clyde, the ninth longest river in Britain, mysteriously claimed from my grandparents the first of their nine children, my Uncle Will. It feels strange thinking about him, being the youngest of the nine grandchildren, and older than he was at the end. His body was drawn into the currents and drifted for six weeks before surfacing at Christmas. Over that time, the days and long cold nights, my grandfather stood on bridges across the fast flowing river looking for his son, desperately afraid of losing him and of finding him.
You can only step in the same river once. You can also only drown in it once, and there are currently 72 bridges across the River Clyde that offer a crossing between this life and whatever follows. On the thirtieth anniversary of the International Year of the Child, two young teenage girls holding hands jumped to their death from a bridge into the Clyde. Less than two weeks earlier, a whale was discovered in the Clyde – lost on its way to wherever whales go. The media and the concerned public avidly followed the story for days, and whale watchers and well-wishers crowded round the actual scene to offer assistance in every way possible. All were heartbroken when it didn’t make it. Being intimately connected with the Clyde, the doubly distressing stories merged in my mind. Had the whale been discovered after the tragic suicide pact instead of before, and if – like my Uncle Will – the girls had taken longer to locate, suspicions regarding their whereabouts may have been roused, and far from trying to free the whale there might have been calls to slaughter it. One might imagine the whale lifted out of the water by a crane and lowered gently onto the harbour. There would be a collective gasp as the belly was slit open, then another when they witnessed the sudden spill. And when we found nothing inside the whale, what might we find inside ourselves?
Around 1980 I met a man who had been rescued from the Clyde. He lived in the ‘dampies’ in the Gorbals and knew no one. Whilst his Kardex stated attempted suicide, he maintained it was an accident, but one day over a game of cards – a way of achieving patches of brightness, and sometimes trust – he confessed he often dreamed of going back. He feared death, but like many others he considered the alternative far worse. My experience taught me to read this dark sense, sometimes described as bereavement plus jetlag, but even yet I can’t fully imagine it. He was given a course of electro-convulsive therapy – on one occasion I helped administer it, my first and last – but unless irritability is an improvement, there was none. At that time I was a young man in a white coat working in a Glasgow psychiatric hospital, a place where it was not unusual to find people trying to die by whatever means possible; I knew a few that succeeded, and in all sorts of ways, but I know I saved one.
Not long after commencing my new role, the standard issue white coat turned red when a teenager with an identity conflict decided to resolve it by punching out a window and opening his arm. This happened as I escorted him back through the interminably long Victorian corridors to his ward. Until this point we had been talking amiably about the New Year, and perhaps he realised he couldn’t face another one. I managed to pin him down before he opened the other arm, kneeling on one hand and leaning to restrain his shoulder, but he adapted by banging the back of his skull on the marble floor. I slipped my hand under his head to prevent him, but he continued to rock his head back violently; I suspected the bones of my hand were fractured. I remained in this position, absurdly as in a game of Twister, until help came, and found myself thinking that if we could just find the reverse switch for this desperation to die, we might launch such a will to live. The blood pulsed into an ever-widening circle around us, like those old paranoid propaganda newsreels of the Red Menace spreading over the map of Europe, but his strength didn’t diminish. The episode probably lasted under two minutes, but seemed longer. People in white coats burst through corridor doors and held him down; one pulled down his trousers and injected him in the backside with a drug that would knock him out for a day, a chemical cosh, and leave him feeling slugged for a day after that. After wrapping a bandage around his arm to stem the bleeding, four men carried him like a giant, sagging X. The wailing irritated one of his carriers, and he hit him, backhanded, with sufficient force to split his lip. More blood. I was helped up by two people in white coats who cautiously stood on tiptoes outside the perimeter of the red lake, and I tried not to slip as I made my way to dry land.
The world spins more slowly in a psychiatric hospital. From admission to release, a few months to several years may easily elapse. In the long-stay wards, I met people that had been there for thirty to fifty years – some admitted in their teens for alleged promiscuity; after a lifetime in this context it was impossible to detect the source of their strange ways, or the part medical fads may have played in forming them. Budgetary constraints complicated ward life; diverse care needs were grouped together – brain injury, Huntingdon’s, late stage syphilis, Alzheimer’s, psychotic disorders – and poor staffing levels often meant the job was simply about maintaining order: some days people woke severely agitated, causing others to join in a cacophony of wailing, screaming and pleading – including pleas to let them die. This could last for hours, but during it conversations continued – just as conversations must surely have continued in shelters during the madness of WW2 bombing raids – and I have fond memories of them.
G, who had a small deep dent either side of his skull, answered his name by standing upright and clicking his heels. An imaginary member of the nobility, Viscount G routinely marched the length of the ward issuing innocuous commands to no one in particular. I don’t know why they had swished a knife around inside his brain some decades before; perhaps he had been violent, though it was by no means a condition for lobotomy. I often attempted to develop a simple dialogue, and through time discovered some progress was possible if I looked in the other direction; facing to speak sent him on a ward march like a clockwork soldier, full of the usual incomprehensible rants, ramblings and magisterial pronouncements. Then one day something different happened. Sitting silently side by side in PVC lounge chairs, eyes straight in front of a soundless TV, he spoke unprompted in low, uncharacteristic tones – almost as though he were someone else – and showed for the first time awareness of where he was. I hung on to every word. “The only person that ever truly cared for me was my sister”, he said. “I would die for her. I wish I could die for her now. But I know I’ll just die in here”.
A moment ago I had the mental image of all the people I met in those dark and dreadful wards posing for a massive group photograph somewhere on the green grounds of that hospital, even those with twisted mouths and tortured expressions, or no expressions at all, somehow smiling and waving. I would glance at it on my mantelpiece, but of course no such photograph exists nor could exist. It is just me, using my imagination how I please. Many of the people I met will be dead now, but they live on in my memory – an amazing piece of cerebral equipment that works like a vehicle of time travel. It can convey the thoughts and experiences drawn from the past to people in the present and the future, and in that sense, I suppose, my time machine takes passengers. I don’t know how many lives the people I encountered touched and in what ways before they reached the ward, but as people, wrongly defined as ‘patients’, I feel their influence.
For some reason I find myself pondering the fact that we were once children – playing games, discovering things, brimming with dreams. We were podgy little things in coats playing in the park, and on the swings, full of smiles rising higher and higher into the air.
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