I had just entered the main gate of the hospital when he said, ‘Hi.’
‘Oh, hi,’ I answered, startled. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘Most don’t. I’m usually too well hidden by a wall of bricks, or up to me eyes in mud to be noticed by anyone.’
He was a bricklayer, large and muscular, adding the final touches to a newly completed incinerator, and by the stamp on his overalls it was obvious that he was an inmate of this hospital: Saint Mary’s for the mentally disturbed.
‘Say, ya wouldn’t be the inspector…the new inspector, would ya?’ he asked.
I cleared my throat and looked up at him, for he was considerably taller and broader than poor little light-framed me.
‘Well, are ya?’
I rubbed my thumb nervously along the handle of my briefcase. I’m not ashamed to say that I was scared of him, for I believe in chatting to mental patients in the company of doctors or orderlies – at least one knows one’s safe.
‘Yes…yes I am,’ I answered in a strained tone.
‘Thank God! Salvation at last!’ He pointed his trowel towards the four-storey red brick edifice. ‘Do ya know how many years I’ve been in there?’
Now I dislike frivolous questions, especially when one is expected to answer with a question; but I knew my place and asked, ‘How many?’
‘Ten flamin’ years, that’s what!’
He shoved his trowel in disgust into a heap of wet cement, hitched a leg up onto a stack of bricks, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. All of these actions he performed in a somewhat casual unconscious manner.
‘Look, mate,’ he said, as smoke blew from his nostrils, ‘this place is drivin’ me bloody nuts. Now, do I in all sincerity look like some loony…do I?’
An awkward silence developed. I was contemplating whether or not to walk off and leave him, when he lamented, ‘Okay, I admit I was once mad – ten years ago.’ He shot me a glance. ‘Do ya remember the case? Well no matter, I was crazy then.’ He shook his big meaty head regretfully. ‘Boy was I crazy. Do ya know what I used to do?’ His weather-beaten face took on an expression of mild amusement. ‘Yer not goin’ to believe this, but my favourite pastime was throwing things at people. I would stroll around the city centre and chuck stones, rubbish, anything I could get my hands on at poor unfortunate souls. Once I collected a whole bag full of empty beer cans and stood on a street corner chuckin’ them at passers-by…hitting them in the head! Crazy, wasn’t it?’
I put my hand in my breast coat pocket, produced my horn-rimmed spectacles and started to clean them. It was a rather poor attempt at evading the question and at the same time a feeble show of coolness. He waited patiently for a reply.
‘Well, wasn’t it crazy?’
I didn’t know how to answer him, so I said timidly, as I put on my glasses. ‘A trifle silly on your part, I think. Perhaps just a tiny bit crazy—’
A roar of laughter left him. ‘A tiny bit crazy, did ya say? That’s an understatement, mate!’
He kept laughing, and eventually I began to laugh with him.
‘A tiny bit crazy,’ he repeated between the peals of laughter. ‘Oh, what a joke!’
By now I was laughing my head off too.
When we both regained our composures, I found to my great surprise that the barriers of fear had been lifted. Now there existed a strong feeling of friendship, unity, in having shared a joyous moment. Nothing like laughter to break the ice, I thought. Conversation flowed effortlessly after that. I found him to be comical and intelligent…and witty too. He offered me a cigarette, which I accepted, and he was sorry to inform me that he didn’t have a beer for me; for, he said, with a wink, it was customary for him to have a furtive beer on the job. I grinned at his slyness.
‘Ya see what they have me doin’ – bricklayin’! Cheap bloody labour. I tell ya I should be on the outside earnin’ a crust, better fer me and better fer the taxpayer. Perhaps I could even find me a wife, have kids, go through the whole routine, ya know. But they won’t let me, the rotten mongrels!’ He gave me that casual workman look again. ‘Say, ya couldn’t put in a few good words fer me, could ya?’
It was more a plea than a request. I said I would.
‘Ya won’t forget, will ya?’
I assured him that I couldn’t help but not forget.
He flicked his cigarette butt onto the grass. I took it as a sign of termination to our conversation.
‘Well, I must be off,’ I said.
He smiled, and we shook hands.
‘Ya won’t forget, will ya?’
‘No I won’t forget,’ I said, placing my hand on his broad muscular shoulder. ‘I’ll see that you’re released – don’t worry. A sane man like you should be on the outside, and I’m determined and confident that you shall.’
‘Thanks, mate,’ he said sincerely, and added with a wiry grin, ‘A tiny bit crazy, was it?’
And so I left him to his work as I walked up the gravel avenue towards the hospital. I had not taken a dozen steps when something solid hit me with great force on the back of the head. Instantly everything went blank! For moments I lingered on the rim of unconsciousness. My head seemed to explode within. I staggered and turned round and as I did, came the sharp crack of glass under my heel: my spectacles. A white brick with blood on it lay at my feet – my blood! Then I heard a voice. It seemed so far away, like a distant echo. Though my vision was considerably blurred, I could make out the bricklayer – the inmate whom I had just left. He was pointing his trowel at me and shouting: ‘That’s just to remind ya matey in case ya forget. Ya won’t forget, will ya?’
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