Some of the stories you learn when you take up a job as a public service interpreter in London are hard to believe. But still, they are true and genuine. Despite living in the UK for quite some time, the sad hero of such a story doesn’t speak proper English. Fuelled by some naive and irrational expectations of finding a better life, he left his Eastern European home country to find this vaguely promised shining future… and never found it.
I met one such hero in a secure ward of a mental hospital somewhere in London. For the purposes of this story, I will call him Mark. He moved from Prague to London five years ago. Why? God knows. After a brief stint sleeping rough in the Czech capital, he finally found a job and was able to pay for some modest accommodation. He was in his early twenties. His mother asked him to leave a tiny semidetached house somewhere in the Czech Republic where he had lived with her, her boyfriend and three siblings.
“Why didn’t you stay in Prague?” asks Claire, a kind young psychologist conducting his psychological evaluation. “It was probably a mistake…. But I wanted to find a girlfriend here…” Mark says timidly. “Why didn’t you look for a girlfriend in the Czech Republic?” she inquires not looking surprised at all. “I couldn’t find any…,” he says.
He had just about enough money to get to the UK but nothing left for the beginning. He came alone and didn’t know anyone. At least that’s what he says. The promised accommodation didn’t work out and he ended up sleeping rough from day one. His English was poor. He was begging the passers-by for money and twice a day went to a charity centre to eat and have a shower. He made some friends among other homeless people and all the time, he was hearing voices. Voices of girls and women he used to see in the streets, sometimes even the voice of his mother was talking to him. He believes they came from God. They were supportive, soothing, trying to help him, encouraging him to turn his life around. But somehow, he couldn’t reach that goal.
“Do you think you can hear other people’s thoughts?”, Claire asks. “Yes, I have this gift ever since I was a child”. Mark obviously likes this topic. “Can you hear my thoughts?” the psychologist inquires. “Yes,” he grins and answers promptly. “What am I thinking about, then?” Claire works systematically. “That we are sitting in the hottest room in the whole building,” his grin turns into a big smile. The locked visitors’ room is really overheated and the air inside is stale. For security reasons they obviously don’t open the windows here too much, if at all. It wouldn’t be surprising if Claire was really thinking about that. What is surprising, however, that Mark only hears female thoughts and voices.
Through a glass wall that separates the visitors’ room from the rest of the ward, we can see other patients. One is constantly peeping inside, trying to look inconspicuous, another one is screaming at the nurses in front of their office.
It seems that Mark is obsessed with the idea of finding a girlfriend. As if this imaginary woman could give his life a purpose and resolve all his problems. When he was sleeping rough, hanging out in the streets during the day, trying to kill the time, he was seeing many girls walking around. He felt that many of them would have understood him, supported him. But he never moved anywhere. When he gets out of the hospital, it will finally change, he hopes.
He would like to be a part of the normal society, be one of them – those people in the streets on the morning run to catch a bus to work. “They look so confident… Perhaps because they have jobs… In their eyes, I am just a homeless,” he says, obviously unhappy with his situation.
Once, he spotted a girl in the street. He believes she was his childhood friend from the Czech Republic. But was it really her? She didn’t want to talk to him; her English boyfriend told him she was someone else. Mark refused to leave them alone and they ended up fighting in front of a supermarket. A police intervention ended the struggle. After that, Mark followed the couple to their house and rang the doorbell several times. The boyfriend called the police. And that’s how Mark ended up in the English prison for the first time, with a six month sentence.
“And where did you go after you were released from prison?” Claire is carefully listening to his story, “sleeping rough again?” she asks. “Yes,” says Mark. “ Didn’t the probation service give you any advice? Addresses of some shelters for homeless people?” “They gave me a list of phone numbers, but I never called there”. Mark seems uncomfortable. “Why didn’t you call there?” Claire is progressing steadily one question after the other. ”Because of my English, I was embarrassed….,”Mark explains his seemingly irrational decision.
So he was back on the street. After that he was arrested and sentenced at several other occasions, making prison his second home – for trespassing, for a drunk-fuelled fight with another homeless, for masturbating in public and finally – for a sexual offense. “I didn’t want to hurt her, I was only interested in her money…., I was depressed,” he is trying to find an explanation for actions that brought him on the sexual offenders list and eventually here, into the psychiatric hospital.
He spotted that girl when she was getting off a bus, he followed her for a while and then…. He attacked her with a knife in his hand. “She called the police immediately when she noticed me, the patrol was there in a heartbeat, nothing happened to her,” he tries to find excuses. After the arrest, the police found an unusual souvenir in his backpack – ladies’ knickers. He says he found them lying on the street: “I don’t know why I had picked them up, I just had….”he shares his thoughts about this peculiar detail.
“Would you like to return home? To the Czech Republic?” asks Claire. “No, I would prefer to stay here, in the UK,” Mark says without hesitation. The session ends and I am leaving this cuckoo’s nest back to the daylight and fresh air. The patient that was screaming at the nurses just a couple of minutes ago is now greeting me with a friendly smile.
On one hand, I feel sorry for Mark, but on the other, I wouldn’t like to meet him in the streets of London after he leaves this place. I just hope that he will manage to gain some control over his life and his problems, perhaps with the help of Claire and psychiatric medication. I hope that once he gets out of the hospital, the story won’t repeat itself, maybe with an even worse outcome.
God knows how many similar lost souls are wandering around the streets of London. In fact, no one really cares… Until they go off the rails.