The alarm rings at 6:55 AM. I’m already awake I’m awake most mornings when the alarm rings. I slowly open my eyes. My head feels as if I’m in a hospital recovery room, coming round after an operation. I’m almost comatose. I can’t think properly. My wife opens the curtains. Daylight burns into my eyes. I squint. Pulling the covers over my shoulders, I wish I could sleep for a week but I know that would be impossible. It’s impossible to sleep once my eyes are open.
After tidying her bed, my wife leaves the bedroom. She goes downstairs and makes a cup of coffee. I lay in bed listening to the radio. It’s tuned to BBC radio 4. She returns to the bedroom, passes my coffee which I nestled carefully on the bed in front of me and drink through a straw.
Listening to the gut-wrenching voice of a female BBC presenter, her cringeworthy politically correct, anti-Donald Trump and opposing anything relating to Brexit narrative, my mind wanders back to 1981 and to the motorbike accident that left me paralysed and in pain. Leaning into a blind bend at 40 miles an hour, my 900 cc Honda motorbike ploughed into a keep left bollard, the back wheel bouncing over the curb and snapping my spine. I came to lying face down on the ground, a woman screaming: “Is he dead?” Blood was dripping onto the visor of my helmet. What the fuck have I’ve I done? I tried to move. Jesus … shit! I couldn’t feel my body. Nothing. Couldn’t get up, move my arms or turn my head. I panicked and then passed out. Blackness.
I have difficulty sleeping due to spasms and pain. I lay in bed anxiously watching the numerals of the digital clock as the minutes turn into hours, my head spiralling into a frenzy of thoughts, mad, disjointed thoughts, thoughts that go round, endlessly repeating themselves over and over and occasionally punctuated with surreal imagery — a rat with a human head scurrying across the floor; people with grotesque puppet faces, beady eyes and gaudy red lips, laughing at me. Where do these fucking images come from? Why can’t I relax my mind? I’ll go mad if I lay there like this, thinking these weird thoughts. Then comes the music, a single line of a song repeating itself over and over again, or the opening chords of a guitar or some other instrument echoing the same theme at the same time and at the same beat and never going anywhere but round and round and over and over, an endless loop of music, on and on and on and round and round and over and over and why can’t this fucking music stop, why can’t I relax my fucking mind? I just can’t relax. No rest for the wicked. The longer I lay awake the more I worry and the more I worried the longer I stay awake. It’s a vicious circle but I can’t break it. I lack the strength or will to stop it. I’m powerless, impotent. I hate living but I’m scared of dying. That old man River. Tired of living but scared of dying. It just keeps rolling along. Don’t plant tatoes. Don’t plant cotton. Just keeps rolling. Don’t stop for nothing. That old man River. Just keeps rolling along.
Somehow I fall asleep. But it’s only a short sleep. I wake up freezing cold. Lay in bed shivering. Can’t get warm. Why won’t my body warm up? No matter how many blankets I pile on the bed, how heavy the duvet, I just cannot get warm. No internal body heat. My wife keeps telling me I don’t eat enough. “How do you expect to stay warm when you don’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive?” I glance at the digital clock. It’s 3:00 AM. I call my wife and ask if she wouldn’t mind turning me. She gets up, pulls the covers from the bed and flips me from my right side and onto my back. The night air is freezing. Disturbed by her movements, I feel its coldness swirling around my near naked body. I’m never going to sleep feeling like this. Desperate to sleep, I ask my wife to pass me a diazepam tablet. She is tired. Moves slowly, almost robotically to the chest of drawers. Opens the drawer and takes out a small medicine jar. “How much do you want,” she asks. I tell her 2 mg. She brings the tablet to me, which I gleefully swallow with a few gulps of water. The water is cold. It makes me shiver even more. “Can you pull the covers right up, please,” I ask. She drags the duvet up and smooths it around the side of my head. I can’t feel my body but if my ears are warm then it has the psychological effect of making me feel warm all over. Then she rolls up a towel and squeezes it down by my right ear, which stops my head flopping sideways and warms the right side of my face. With my head nestled comfortably into the pillow, I try to relax, settle my mind and drift off to sleep.
My mind wanders. I’m on stage now, crowds of people rushing forward to watch and hear me play. My body moves with the rhythm of the music, my features contorting with the raunchy sounds coming from my guitar. I have no inhibitions and parade around the stage like a showman. I’m a different person when I’m on stage: flamboyant and outrageous.
Mustn’t think of songs. But they creep into my mind. One line of a song or a few bars of music going over and over and repeating themselves time and time again. Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell … at the end of lonely street they call heart break hotel …
Tired of living but scared of dying. That old man River. He just keeps rolling along.
Girls in the audience, dancing, looking at me. My mind wanders away from music and I think of sex, frenzied sex, all the various sexual experiences that I’ve had when I could walk. For a moment I forget that I’m cold. Suddenly I’m taking some girl down a dark alley. We stop in a quiet and secluded area. She leans against the wall and lifts her dress, thrusts her hips forward as I wriggle my cock up between her legs. We kiss, our lips crushed together and our heads rolling around. Fuck it. Instead of calming myself I’m winding myself up. I’ve got to abandon these wild and exciting fantasies and think of other things. Got to calm down and fall asleep, got to try and relax, forget about sex. If I don’t sleep I’ll end up with head filled with cotton wool, concrete, thoughts dragging themselves sleepily through a mire of glue, struggling for freedom and expression. That old man River. He just keeps rolling along. Tired of living but scared of dying.
It is 7:15 AM. The sickly voice of the BBC presenter is still droning on when Debbie and Rute arrive. I hear them talking downstairs. Debbie laughs. She must have said something funny to my wife, who is also downstairs. I hear Rute climbing the stairs. She enters the bedroom. We greet each other and chat as she peels the blankets back, folds them up and places them neatly on the floor. I lay there naked but unashamed. I’m so used to these carers that I have no embarrassment. With a clatter, the lift emerges through the floor. Debbie enters the room, opens the lift door and takes out the water. I jokingly call her a BBC employer, which is a euphemism for British Bum Washer (Debbie is from Zimbabwe). We chat and laugh as they wash me. Rute rubs anti-inflammatory cream into my back and neck, intuitively knowing where to massage for maximum effect. I melt as her fingers delicately squeeze my aching muscles. For a moment I forget my miseries, the freezing cold night, the spasms, the sleepless moments and my dull brain. When I’m dressed, they hoist me from the bed and lower me into the wheelchair. My wife straightens my clothes and I wheel into the through floor lift and descend to the room below. From there I back out of the lift and move into the shower room. Debbie washes my hair and Rute dries it. And that’s it, me up and dressed and ready for the day. Tired of living but scared of dying. That old man River. He just keeps rolling along. So much pain. So much suffering. Scared of dying but tired of living. Tired of living but scared of dying. Living and dying. Of man River. Scared. Old man Michael just keeps rolling along.
James knocks on the door. I open it. He tells me he is living in a tent now. James used to be a good-looking boy, came from a good home with good parents. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any food, Harry?” he asks. He also begs for money. “I desperately need £10. I wouldn’t normally ask but …” I invite him in. His trousers are torn from the thigh to the crotch. His blue underwear is exposed. I find some clothes and give them to him. Help him make up a food parcel. Tell him where to find the Mars bars and Snickers. He opens the tin and helps himself. I gives him £10, even though I know he will spend it on drugs. James heads towards the front door. Pauses. “Look at this,” he says, leaning down and tugging at his trouser leg, trying to wriggle it up and expose his leg. Finally he pulls it up to his knee. His ankles and calfs are as thick as tree trunks. “It’s my kidneys,” he says with alarming nonchalance. Wrapped around the calf is a swathe of dirty bandages, which he slowly unwinds. Beneath the bandage there’s a dressing, which he peels off. I’m horrified. His leg has a massive ulcer which is eating deep into his flesh. It looks putrid. Sickening. “I’ve got another one on the other leg,” he says casually. “The Urgent Care Centre dress it for me.” Most of his teeth are missing. Back teeth rotted and worn down to the gums. They no longer hurt. The nerves have long since died. Ravaged by drugs, mainly heroin and methadone. No home and no hope. Parents love him but they have lost him. He is not their son any more — he is the son of a habit, a slave of narcotics. Tired of living but scared of dying. Thankful for small mercies. James smiles as he leaves the house, revealing black and broken teeth. I look at his eyes. They are sad. They are black. They are sorrowful, heart-breaking eyes. Desolate smile. Grateful for small mercies. Clutching his bag of food and his new clothes, he just keeps rolling along. Back to the tent in the woods with his £10, which he will spend on a shot of heroin to get him through the night.
Just like me, James has to take drugs to get through the night. That old man River. Don’t plant tatoes. Don’t plant cotton. Just keeps rolling. Don’t stop for nothing. That old man River. He just keeps rolling along.