A fictionalised account of my experiences supporting homeless people with mental health issues at a charity-run hostel in the Midlands. I learned a lot, about other people and myself. Much of it was good, sometimes it was distressing. And I had my preconceptions as a liberal do-gooder challenged, losing some innocence but perhaps seeing the world more clearly as a result.



Food was what the day revolved around as a patient on the ward. There were few fixed points in the day, so food became the highlight of what would have otherwise been an undifferentiated stretch of time. By breaking it up with meals, it became more manageable. We've had breakfast, so it won't be long before lunch. After that, and a sleep, it'll be time for dinner. And how about some supper while you're whiling away the evening?

The best food was for people who were on special diets: halal and West Indian. But you didn't need to be Muslim or to have West Indian ancestry to choose those meals. So I'd mix things up and have some fine lamb curry or rice and peas along with fish and chips and whatnot. Only, what with my head being the way it was, I took it all rather seriously and took myself up to the multi-faith chapel to give thanks and be suitably respectful. Which was a kind thought, even if muddled.

The days dragged on, and I spent some of my time sitting on a chair in a corridor that most used to get to and from destination points on the ward, but was otherwise overlooked. It saved me having to interact with other patients, some of whom were pretty scary. I was doing my best to read a book one day, and one guy - Luke - told me to stop as my thoughts were broadcast to everyone on the ward and it was disturbing them. I put the book down: what he said seemed reasonable, and I was in no mood for conflict. Besides, I'd thought similar things myself.

"Look at her," Luke said, pointing to an older woman patient, who ate only sandwiches. "As long as she's alive, the premature babies will breathe properly and get better."

I nodded. He'd been on the ward longer than I had, so he knew these things.

Luke hung out with a group of guys who seemed to be led by a frail looking guy who drank organic orange squash. Somehow, I picked up that this intense character was a prophet, our ward's very own Jesus. I was respectful in his presence, sensing his holiness even though I questioned the way he would smear food onto plates and hide them in unexpected places. Mysterious ways and all that.

After maybe a week, I was told I could go out into the community. Not everyone was awarded this privilege, and it could be taken back. I was grateful, wanting to get away. I was already allowed into other parts of the hospital, and was unhappy about my experience of occupational therapy. Seeing I was big, one of the staff had asked me to move a wheelbarrow full of bricks from the builders he'd schemed them from, all the way through the building to his therapeutic garden, where he was constructing some kind of pagoda. I didn't mind too much, but didn't feel it was fair that he also asked another patient who worked in the building trade. That seemed to exploit his skills and willingness, doing something he'd normally be paid for like that.

I discovered a luxury hotel next to the hospital. The perfect place to spend a good chunk of the day, slowly drinking an orange juice and reading their magazines while soaking the heat up. Lovely, On the way home, I passed a place I'd not noted on the way in, but which now had police tape all around it, and uniformed police officers with dogs.

Back on the ward, waiting for my mutton jalfrezi, someone indicated the front cover of a local newspaper. A murdered woman. I realised from the pictures she lived at the house that had been cordoned off. A brief article inside indicated that police believed the murder may have been committed by a resident of the nearby mental hospital.

The mutton was dry in my mouth. It could have done with some mango chutney. Or maybe a glass of water.



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