‘There’s a little kid inside my skull who likes to fight,’ the stranger began.
I’d only walked into the grubby looking railway pub because I had two and a half hours to wait for the Edinburgh train. It wasn’t long before I began to regret it.
‘Really?’ I asked, in what I hoped was a politely dismissive manner.
There were another three patrons and I hoped to hell he would go bother them.
‘Yes,’ the panda-eyed middle-aged bloke replied, with an almost manic nodding of his wispy, grey head. ‘Not people. Oh, god no! It fights sleep. And to be exact: my sleep.’
My flat looking pint arrived. I paid the barman.
‘Do you serve lunch, please?’ I asked across the bar, with hope that the pint-puller could save me from whatever Wispy-head was going to tell me next.
He merely shook his head and sauntered off down the bar to watch the horse racing on the TV in the corner.
‘It fights sleep,’ Wispy told me again. ‘Always has. Ever since I was a kid. I bet you can’t tell me how long it is since I last slept. Go on, ask me. Ask me. Go on, ask me how long I’ve gone, because he’s being an annoying little shit. Go on. Ask me.’
‘I don’t know,’ I began. For the most part just to stop him blowing a fuse and stabbing a glass into my exposed neck. ‘A few days?’
‘HA! If only! More like twelve days. I can actually feel my hair growing out of my arms and skull. And this isn’t my longest without sleep. Once it stopped for nearly three whole weeks!’
‘Why don’t you see a doctor and get something to help you,’ I asked, both worried by his erratic behaviour and concerned for his well being. ‘He could give you a tranquilliser.’
‘That would be cheating. Oh, no no no. I could take the pill, and boy I’ve been offered handfuls in my time, believe you and me, but the kid would only wake up and be more furious. He’s quiet today, but as soon as I put my head on the pillow: BANG! He whispers fear into my ear and songs into my brain.’
‘He’s quiet today?’ I asked, armed with an idea.
He merely nodded his head with gleeful fury.
‘Then why don’t you try and sleep now while he’s being quiet?’
I shot my eyes across the barren pub and saw the ideal spot.
‘There,’ I pointed. ‘In that chair.’
‘Wouldn’t it be a bit rude to doze off in company?’
‘I don’t mind, if your tired. And if your needed I’ll wake you up.’
‘Hmmmmm-I could try it,’ he conceded and traipsed off to slump into a scuffed red leather seat by the door.
I sighed and returned to my copper coin and detergent tasting pint.
Every now and again I would peer over my shoulder to see him; eyes closed and silent.
‘How the hell did you do that?’ The barman popped up and asked, with relief squirting from every pore on his face. ‘Mad Jack’s been coming here years and never once have I seen him settle. You an hypnotist?’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘Maybe it was just his time to sleep.’
‘Well, you can have the next pint on the house.’
‘That’s okay,’ I told him; more out of my utter distaste for the liquid he passed off as lager than because I was being altruistic. ‘How long’s he been coming in here, did you say?’ I asked before turning to admire my handiwork.
‘Oh, on and off for about four years or so,’ I heard the barman tell me.
Though the volume of his voice seemed to fade as something seemed odd about the way Mad Jack was sleeping. His head appeared somewhat artificial and greyer than it should.
‘Do you think he’s okay?’ I asked, feeling concerned.
‘Damn right! He’s asleep.’
‘I guess, but…’ I edged over to where Mad Jack was sprawled.
‘You wanna leave him, pal,’ the barman warned. ‘I’ve seen him break someone’s nose for less!’
I can’t begin to say now what the feelings in me were, but fear of a broken hooter was not one of them. The closer I got the heavier my stomach felt, until I gave up the tippy-toe act and bolted over to him. His lips had taken on a bruised blue/purple look where once they were pale and thin and his skin was greyer than his hair, but mottled with purple. He somehow didn’t look real. I’m sorry if I’m not expressing this adequately, but he looked like a badly painted waxwork of the manic, sleep-deprived loon of a moment ago.
‘Ring an ambulance!’ I cried. ‘I think he’s not breathing!’
‘Are you sure?’ The barman asked with all the understanding of a bag of spuds.
‘Yes! ‘ I yelled and began to pull Mad Jack onto the floor to perform CPR.
The training had at last been called upon. Despite it being a manky-mouthed maniac, I didn’t hesitate. But, who would?
Though, it didn’t matter.
Soon enough the ambulance men arrived, took over and then rushed him off, with looks that said thanks for trying, but he’s gone.
After they’d carried him out, the barman offered me a glass of the good stuff, but I had a train to catch, so ran out, feeling empty and confused.
Was I the reason he’d died? I wondered as I watched northern England and southern Scotland flash by. What if I hadn’t made him go to sleep?
It would be two weeks before I arrived back at that station and, despite only having half an hour to wait for my connecting train to Leeds, I had to see what’d happened.
‘He died,’ the barman told me matter of fact. ‘He didn’t have any family so they buried him pretty much straight away. Apparently his name wasn’t even Jack, it was John! Go figure. He’d spent some time in a hospital in Leeds: Hydroyds or summat?’
‘Highroyds?’ I asked, feeling very strange indeed.
Highroyds was a mental hospital. A psychiatric hospital Eddie Waring, the great rugby commentator, had, with ignorance, ended up in. And a place whose name all our bedding was stamped with when I was a kid.