‘Smile Harder’

This story – based, in part, on real-life events – was published by The Lonely Crowd in the spring of 2017. If you enjoy it, or any of the stories on my blog, I’d be very grateful if you’d think about supporting my novel Quays, now crowdfunding with Unbound.

     

‘Thanks for seeing me,’ he says.

‘No problem, Inzamam.’

‘But it was a problem. Don’t say that when I’m saying thank-you. Say ‘you’re welcome’. Don’t say it like it’s nothing.’

Pause. Take a breath.

‘Sorry. You’re welcome.’

‘Okay.’ He shifts in his seat, nods. ‘Okay.’

‘So – how are you doing, Inzamam?’

‘I’m doing bad, aren’t I. Otherwise I wouldn’t have called you, would I.’  

‘No, I see that. Do you want to tell me what happened?’

‘My head’s just all over the place, man. It’s like popcorn.’

‘Like – sorry, what?’

Impatiently: ‘Like a packet of popcorn, when you microwave it. Rattling, all the time rattling, banging. Only the microwave never goes ping, it never stops, it’s never finished. Pop pop pop. All over the place.’

‘Is there anything in particular bothering you?’

‘Everything! Everything. Wife. Daughter. Father, mother, brother. Both brothers.’ He smiles quickly. He has a nice smile. ‘Money, bills. The news, the TV. Traffic! Women. God.’

‘But nothing more than usual?’

Everything more than usual.’

I nod, take a note, just for form’s sake.

‘And tonight – did something happen tonight, Inzamam? Before you called us?’

‘I was just driving. Out to Birstall, on a delivery. Guy had ordered chicken jalfrezi and a Peshwari naan. Peshwari naan! With a jalfrezi! And I was driving, and I was just thinking, man, what’s wrong with you man, Peshawari naan, with a jalfrezi. Are you crazy. So I was just thinking about that and then I started thinking about what I’d say to him when he answered the door, if I’d say ‘listen man, are you crazy or what, you don’t order a Peshwari naan with a chicken jalfrezi, you want a garlic naan, or chapati, that’s what you want, innit? Not Peshwari.’ And then I thought, what’s he going to do when I tell him this? I pictured him, this guy with his stupid food, I pictured him just shutting the door in my face. Like I was a nobody, man. Maybe he’d say something, like, ‘Thanks, chief’, all sarcastic or something, or maybe  he’d laugh at me, like right in my face. I thought about that and I just started getting so mad. Just at my imagination! Pop pop pop. It wasn’t just the jalfrezi. It was everything. Everything.’

Dry throat. Swallow. Nod.

‘What did you do, Inzamam?’

‘Don’t look at me like that, man. I didn’t do anything.’

‘I mean – what happened?’

‘Nothing happened. I pulled over, on the hard shoulder. Stopped the car. Just sat there.’

‘Were you still thinking about the man with the curry?’

‘Wasn’t thinking about anything. Couldn’t think, man. Pop, pop, pop. Like having the radio on dead loud but no music coming out, no-one talking, nothing being broadcast. Just loud noise.’

‘And then what did you do?’

‘I called the number you gave me. I came here.’ He laughs. ‘The jalfrezi’s still in the car, if you’re hungry. Be cold but it’s still good.’

Mirror his smile.

‘Won’t the customer be upset when his dinner doesn’t arrive?’

‘Can’t worry about him, man. Should cook his own dinner anyway. People today. Want everything brought to them. Click their fingers, want people to come running.’

‘We’re a service economy these days, they say.’

‘You don’t know anything about it.’

‘You clicked your fingers tonight, didn’t you, Inzamam? And I came running.’ Smile. Smile harder. ‘Just another branch of the service industry.’

Oh no –

‘You don’t know anything about it!’ He sweeps his arm across my desk. Crash. Laptop, coffee-cup, calendar. Coffee on my shoes. Heart’s hammering.

Straight away he says: ‘It’s okay. I shouldn’t have done that. Don’t talk to me like that. You don’t know what it’s like. But it’s okay. I’ll go. Sorry. You made me angry. Sorry. It’s okay.’

‘What are you going to do?’

Whatever it is, don’t do it here, don’t do it to me.

But he won’t do anything. I can see that much.

‘I’ll go home,’ he says. ‘I need to sleep, man. Sorry, Doctor. I’ll go home, go to bed. I’ll go home.

He goes. I guess he goes home. The main thing is, he goes.

*

New day. No time for a shower. Coffee in a paper cup. ‘Rachel’, the guy writes on the cup. It’s Róisín but never mind. Bus, train, bus. Then a walk. Halfway house on the edge of an industrial park.

‘Morning, Ro.’ Ken’s the day warden.

‘Everyone here?’    

‘Everyone as should be, nobody as shouldn’t.’

Six men here, plus Ken. All men with ‘issues’. All except Ken, although he’s probably got issues of his own. Who hasn’t? Six men with sex issues, social issues, violence issues. Mad men, you’d have called them once. Six mad men and me.

Weak tea, milk on the turn. Cereal bar. Sofa in the warden’s office, box-file on my knee, wrestling with paperwork. Pirate radio station playing hiphop down the corridor. Get this done then go round and inspect the troops. Glance over the register: Jim, Anwar, Craig, Raheem, Lee, Patrick.

Lee put his wife in hospital. Anwar ran over a prostitute and drove off. Craig came out of the Army and tried to rape a schoolgirl.

Issues.

I’d have said it was mad, once. Me? In here? With them? Overnight?

Now, it’s nothing. I don’t mean that it’s not frightening. I mean that being frightened is nothing.    

Rounds. Psychologist face on. Jim shakes my hand with both of his, smiles. Lots of nodding, affirming, agreeing. Out on a job today. Plasterer. Cash-in-hand I reckon. Don’t begrudge it. Patrick, older, slower. Can’t smell booze on him. The others in Psych hate him. He rants, raves, throws chairs. Broke Hannah’s hand. OK with me or OK so far anyway. That’s why they assigned him to me.   

Raheem monosyllabic under a bandanna. Lee jumpy, twitchy. Scab on his bald head.

Anwar’s new, shy. Booked  up today with appointments, advisors, counsellors.            

‘They’re not as scary as they sound,’ I say.

‘I’m not scared,’ he says.                       

Sure, Anwar. Me neither.

Tesco Express lunch, back to the hospital. Half two, erectile dysfunction. Half three, AIDS. Half four, grief, or depression, or both. Those are the goodies. Couple of hours to myself, read a journal article, eat an apple.

Cath puts her head round the door.

‘You look knackered.’

‘I am knackered.’

‘Chin up.’

Gone. Back to the baddies.

Late round at nine. Dark outside. Clipboard. Jacket. Psychologist face. Psychologist face.  

There’s a secure room downstairs where I sleep and there’s a lock on the door but there’s no lock on me, now, doing the rounds up and down the wan-lit corridors. Signs are all I have: go away, stop, back off. No. No.

Jim’s ‘ready to turn in’, ‘dead beat’. Plaster-dust in his hair. Raheem in a plastic chair with a Bible and a fag. Might be a spliff. Think it’s a spliff. Don’t care. G’night, Raheem. Lee wound up. He wants to talk I think but I’m not talking to him. Not at night. I’m friendly in the mornings – I do my job in the mornings – but not at night.

Anwar doesn’t recognise me from this morning. Another weary white face. Whatever. Dead on his feet. Waves me away.

I leave Patrick till last because his room’s nearest my room.          

‘Good day?’

‘A good day,’ he nods.

I don’t get near enough to smell if he’s had a drink. If he’s had a good day he probably has.

‘G’night Patrick.’

‘Goodnight, Róisín.’

I don’t like that. ‘Doctor’ is something I have. One of my signs, one of my best ones. Pause at the door. Put him right? Doctor Baines, to you. No. Never mind. Go.

Close his door behind me.          

Then the lights go out and I hear the door open again.

There’s a lightswitch at the far end of the corridor, by the door downstairs, and there’s one a few paces back the way I’ve just come. That’s the one Patrick’s tripped.

Run.

A footstep bends the floor-tiles. Breath on the back of my neck. Don’t run. Too late. Fight? No. Not yet. Half-turn my head. Breath: whisky breath. Patrick a pace away. Arm’s reach.

Think. Patrick’s history: booze, anger, depression. Brawler, rough sleeper. Nothing bad. Women? Don’t know.

He’s holding his breath. You do that before you jump off the high board.

‘Patrick,’ I say.

I hear him swallow.

I have my jacket, my clipboard, my psychologist face. No use now, here in the dark.

‘Patrick,’ I say. ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking of doing. But if you do anything to me, you’ll be back with Hannah. And you hate Hannah.’

Stupid. Stupid. Why would that stop you? If you were going to kill someone, rape someone, beat someone up, why would that stop you?

The floor-tiles flex. Run. No. Wait.

I hear the door open. I hear it close. No breath. Turn. Still a booze smell. His smell. Wait. Wait.

Then run, run like hell, hammer the light switch, turn, gone?, gone, empty corridor, bash at the keypad, hammer and kick at the door, blunder through, slam shut, slam again, down the stairs, into the overnight room, light on, slam shut, lock.

Stop. Breathe. Think. Me and Cath will laugh about this. We hate Hannah too. Breathe. Breathe. Drink in the light.

*

‘Better, I think. Thank-you. Better. A bit better.’

‘That’s good.’

‘Yeah.’

‘How do you feel about – about last time, Inzamam?’

Squirms in his chair.

‘Sorry, doctor. Obviously. It’s up one minute down the next. Do something bloody daft one minute then the next – you know. Sorry.’

‘It’s okay.’ No. Correct myself. ‘Well, of course, it wasn’t okay, Inzamam. But I know you know that, and I appreciate your apology.’

A grin. Then suddenly no grin.

‘I wouldn’t hurt you,’ he says.

He wants me to say ‘I know’.

‘Good.’

‘Never. I’m not like that.’

‘Good.’

He looks around the office.

‘Bloody mess in here.’

‘I know. That’s what you get when five doctors share an office meant for one.’

‘That’s what I’m like. Chaos. Stuff all over the place. I mean in my head, you know. All sorts of stuff. Enough stuff for five people. Five hundred people! And it’s funny because everywhere else I’m very tidy, doctor, I’m proper tidy!’ A laugh. ‘And I always think one day I’ll tidy it all up and throw out all the rubbish and that and it’ll be okay, like a nice place to live.’

‘Well, that’s what we’re here to help with.’

‘But the thing is, doctor.’ Leans forward, folding his hands. His leather jacket creaks. ‘I don’t want to throw out the wrong stuff. How do I know? How do I know what’s worth something?’

‘What do you think is the most valuable thing you have? Personally. What are you most afraid of losing?’

‘Daughter. Mum. Car. Wife. House. But in my head? I don’t know. It’s like, anger. Anger can be good, can’t it? It’s good to be angry – at injustice, bad things, sin.’

‘Perhaps it’s about learning to control these things. Rather than getting rid of them.’

‘Should learn to control my wife.’ Another grin. ‘Fat chance. But then if you can control it’s not anger, is it, though. I don’t know what it is. It’s like – love.’ Spoken shyly. Grow up, for Christ’s sake. ‘I don’t know how you control it. You’re not meant to. I don’t want to, sometimes.’

‘What about fear, Inzamam?’

A frown. Not angry. Puzzled.

‘I dunno.’ Now a laugh. Something like a laugh anyway. ‘What would I be scared of, man? But I suppose if my house was on fire or someone was coming after me with a big gun or something – being afraid tells you to run, doesn’t it? Get out, get away. Bad things are happening.’

Nod. Make a meaningless note.

‘If you control your fear,’ Inzamam says, ‘you’ll just, like, stay there, like an idiot, while your house burns down.’

Smile.

‘Some might call that brave.’

‘Some might, if they’re an idiot.’

Laugh.

 

 

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