Too much coffee combined with an evening spent doing my accounts meant that I spent the entire night wide awake – literally not a wink of sleep. And so of course, by about 3 am, I was replaying every awkward, embarrassing, humiliating and dishonourable episode in a life rich with such occurrences. Finally my mind came to focus on what I’d always thought of as one of the less shameful memories. Back in 1990 I was living opposite the Royal Free in Hampstead. Things had been going rather badly for me – a series of romantic misadventures and thoughtless acts had left me almost friendless – my reserves of charm, which I’d thought able to get me out of scrapes, having proved to be illusory. I was living with someone who was close to the point of loathing me – again, my fault rather than any failure of human sympathy on her part.
Anyway, it was late at night and I’d been for a walk, escaping the tension in the flat, trying to find a way forward in my life. Then I saw a legless man in a wheelchair outside the off-licence which used to be there on the corner. Wearing pyjamas and a thin dressing gown on this cold night, he was wheeling his chair back and forwards, ramming his head against the window.
I asked if he was OK, and he said he was just desperate for a drink. We were still just in time to get last orders at The Roebuck, so I wheeled him there and bought him a pint. It was impossible to guess his age – his hair was jet black, but his face was a skull. He told me his story. He’d fought in the Falklands, then worked on the railways. He’d got drunk at work one day, and been hit by a train, which is how he’d lost his legs. He’d lost everything else as well – his wife and home. He’d lived on the street for a while, and then got cancer of the everything. He was at the Royal Free waiting for an operation in two days’ time – an operation he was unlikely to survive, he said. This was his last chance to get drunk – he’d be nil by mouth the next day.
It was closing time, and he asked if I’d buy him a carry out, and wheel him back to the ward. We decided that I could be his brother, over from Australia, which he was convinced would get around the visiting hours restriction. So, his wheelchair clinking with the concealed booze, I wheeled him into the hospital and up to his ward. The male nurse on duty saw through, I guess, the act, but let me though, We stayed up for a couple of hours, drinking furtively in the sitting room at the end of the ward. He was an extraordinary character, full of humour, and utterly lacking in self-pity, despite his woes. I suppose it’s possible that much of what he said was bullshit, but I’m a natural sceptic, and I believed it all. If he’d been bullshitting, he’d have claimed he lost his legs in the war. Or that’s what I’d have done.
Finally the booze was out, and I had to go. I wished him luck for the operation, and remember stooping awkwardly to embrace him in his chair.
I’ve told this story many times, always in a vaguely self-congratulatory way, proving how decent I am, and how open to experience. Also, because I though the man deserved to be remembered.
But this morning, racked by insomnia and anxiety I suddenly saw the obvious, terrible truth in the story. I lived opposite the hospital – literally a stone’s throw away. I was possibly his only friend. Yet I didn’t go and visit the ward later in the week to find out what had become of him. Once I’d walked out of the Royal Free, he stopped existing as a real person, and became only a character in a story I’d tell. I’d completely failed in my duty as a human being. Twenty-six years it’s taken me to see this.