Don’t do it, Mr Collingwood …

Portrait_002I think I first noticed the man because he looked uncannily like a school teacher I’d had a positive relationship with. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I went to the supermarket, the man was always there. I’d say inside my head, ‘Good morning “Mr Collingwood”’ in that distinct rhythm we are all taught to address teachers by as school children.

Sometimes I’d meet ‘Mr Collingwood’ in one of the aisles; on other visits I’d see him, almost hunkered down, in the far corner of the car park, close to the railway line – my favourite parking spot.

When someone looks familiar, I think we signal something to the other person – perhaps we radiate a connection in the unconscious that they respond to.

Over the warm summer months it felt comfortable striking up a non-verbal, nodding acquaintance. When you see someone often enough on a regular route or passage, you begin to notice things about them. What I observed about ‘Mr Collingwood’ was that despite his slender frame he was always eating, but there were only ever two things he consumed: a large baguette pulled straight from the bread rack, cellophane wrapper rolled a little way down as he consumed it; or a family size bag of salt and vinegar chipsticks. Both the baguette and the chipsticks were eaten in a very similar manner – thumbs to the back of the packaging and fingers to the front. He would tilt his head down to a fixed position and then the packaging was raised close to his mouth as the food from within was consumed. It took a few observations before I was certain, but it became clear that bread was eaten inside the supermarket yet the salt and vinegar snacks were only ever eaten outside. In fact, the more often I saw him with the savoury snacks, the more I noticed he ate the sticks in a manner reminiscent of a horse with a nose bag, munching up the hay.

I’m not that certain how many times I actually saw ‘Mr Collingwood’ and I’m not sure how quickly I realised he had mental health issues, but we were exchanging a few words by the time the clocks went back in autumn. We never went beyond an ‘It’s warm today …’, ‘For the time of year …’ type of conversation, but it seemed appropriate, safe, friendly – respectful, even.

Shortly before Christmas, on my journey to the supermarket I was overtaken by a police car. At the roundabout, which is the entry road to the store, I could see, close to my parking spot, another police car. The traffic quickly began to back up at the railway crossing and it was clear that a late middle age man, stripped to the waist, was in major distress in the middle of the track. Those with mental health problems need to be treated sensitively and it is incumbent upon police officers to respond in such a manner. Being the first at a scene like this you’d hope the officers had extensive training in how to calm a situation and deal with the distress. But how can this really be expected of a service that was created for very different purposes? I took a look at the officers. They were young and I’m certain trying to do their best, but watching the scene from the car park it was apparent that every time a uniformed figure approached and shouted out to the half-naked figure, a wave of distress racked the figure’s body. He repeatedly raised his hand then smashed his fists on his body like a man boxing an internal shadow he was trying to rid himself of. I looked around for ‘Mr Collingwood’ and my heart leapt; for a moment I didn’t catch my breath and then a tear pricked my eye. It was poor ‘Mr Collingwood’ who was on the railway line. I pushed myself forward for a few metres and talked to the female officer closest to me.

‘I wonder if I can help?’ I asked.

‘No sir, we have to keep you back this side of the line,’ she replied.

‘I know this man a little; I’m a psychotherapist.’

What the hell am I saying!! This isn’t my line of work anymore. I’ve not worked in a hospital department since 2004.

‘We have called for an appropriate medical professional sir, if you could just stand back please.’ And I watched as three other officers tried to herd ‘Mr Collingwood’ like a farm animal.

I’ve not seen him since at the supermarket; I miss our nods and acknowledgements of the simple things we’ve noticed of the day. I hope you are well ‘Mr Collingwood’, I hope you are well.

 

Duncan suggests …

… talking to people in the world as we pass through. Little acknowledgements or kind words can be important connections for us all.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The unspeakable

Portrait_002‘A Jew killed my baby.’

The words had rushed out and now lay like mustard gas in a trench, ready to choke either of us if we breathed. There was an undoubted toxic nature to what was said about the loss of a child but it felt equally toxic that the allegation, from nowhere, was that a Jew had committed the act.

Throughout my lifetime society has become increasingly uncertain about how it can deal with challenging words and phrases – perhaps even more than challenging situations.

Growing up in the centre of a major city, ethnic strife had been around me. I would even witness race riots and disturbance up close and personal. But my junior school was a safe, close community sort of school.

The first girl I remember kissing – I was 5 – was a Jehovah’s Witness; she mixed well with the Methodist children, Catholic children and Jewish children – although not everyone came to assembly and sang the hymns. Hashtag Morning has broken

‘I wrote a poem.’

I’m momentarily stunned by his voice breaking into my distant memories. In my teens, I had dated a Jewish girl for more than a year. My mind was away again with those thoughts … being at Jewish New Year; playing an extraordinary board game full of Jewish expressions I hardly understood. And in the time we dated, I don’t remember her ever mentioning that she received any anti-Semitic insults.

‘I wanted to read it to you. I want someone to hear it – out loud,’ he says. I’m motionless, perhaps frozen. Why am I so worried? Is it because it might be aimed negatively at a Jewish person? This young man is in pain; I need to listen to him.

Gently I motion that I am ready to hear him. ‘Okay,’ I say. I am listening, but I know I’m doing the equivalent of looking through my fingers at the scary film on the screen.

Within the bitch lies my beggar, the unseen, unheard one I love …’

And I do listen. And it is upsetting to hear the story of how this young man who, while having been unworldly, felt ready to make a choice because of the pregnancy his sperm had jointly created. He felt it right and responsible to take on the role of father. This young man was ready to stand by his partner, to make a relationship that was secure enough and loving enough for a family to be created. This young man was ready to take the step that many are never able to: to devote his energy, his action, for the good of a child, to love the son or daughter, to support and grow together with the mother. His poem drew me close to tears as he sobbed the words. The anger at the Jewish woman, the ‘bitch’ in his poem was a pale disguise for the distraught position every man can feel when a pregnancy is terminated against his own wishes.

I’m no longer worried about the shock of a ‘Jewish baby killer’. The sheer wretched desolation of a man in his mid-40s telling me of the loss he had experienced 27 years earlier is the new unspeakable. In front of me, through the tears and months of piecing together the fragments of story, the 18-year-old’s tale has finally been told.

‘I’ve never shared those words, never spoken them out loud,’ he seems to sigh from deep within his psyche.

The doleful look is frozen on the teenager’s face but I am already sat once again with the mid-40s singleton.

The visiting of prostitutes, the mistrust of partners and the generalising of that trait, ultimately, the tragic inability to connect – even within the successful relationships, even with the kind women – appears to have a place. The tale of this bachelor finally has a narrative. This has been the direction, the goal of which the therapy dyad has sought. But there is an undoubted emptiness at this temporary destination and there are new unspeakables.

He had been so close to everything that society vaunts, pumps out, demands that men and women achieve – the goals of life: a partner, a lover, a child who creates of a couple a family. The child never born, the siblings never created. There is an endless line of loss, thoughts and images that the therapy chair receives.

What he feels, I have just felt, but what he is now thinking remains a mystery that the clock controls.

As the seconds tick, we both know it will not lend us enough time today.

Duncan suggests …

… consulting Brook’s website page ‘Abortion: Advice for men’

www.brook.org.uk

 

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.