Country Diary: 13
The Idler’s Editor, Tom Hodgkinson, has retired to a Devon Farmhouse to write a book. Here’s the thirteenth part of his diary.
WHEN Victoria went to see our neighbours to complain (nicely) about their dogs leaving turds in our yard, she found out that the boyfriend of the couple, Pete, had been chucked out of the house by Elizabeth and was sleeping in the back of the car. Feeling charitable and neighbourly, Victoria offered Pete a couple of nights in our spare room, and Pete offered to do some jobs around the house in return. Pete painted the tiles in the bathroom and told us about his problems. He had given up drinking, he said, three weeks previously. He had a problem with it, and had fallen out with his sister and mother, who live in Plymouth. About 30, tattooed and tracksuited, he seemed nice enough if a little lost and didn’t impose. On Wednesday he went with Elizabeth to see his mother in Plymouth. The idea was to collect his stuff, but on his return he said the day had been a disaster. His mother had not allowed him into the house and there had been lots of tears. On Thursday we had friends coming. Pete had still not sorted out anywhere he could go and when I asked him what his plans were he said he didn’t know, he had none. We offered him to let him sleep in our camper van in the yard and gave him a sleeping bag. On Saturday at lunch he said he was going to walk five miles to Lynton. That day we had a big party for Arthur’s fourth birthday. At around seven, Pete turned up on the doorstep, tottering drunk and wearing a sheepish expression. “I’m sorry,” he said. He’d been drinking all afternoon in a pub in Lynton. I sat him down, gave him another drink and had a chat. His voice was slurred and he complained about his lot. Then we called his girlfriend. She came round and the two of them had a huge row on the doorstep. “Pete, we’re finished,” she shouted. Pete came in and started crying. “I’m so lost,” he said. I put my hand on his shoulder and took him out to the van. We sat down and smoked a cigarette in the van. Pete put on his Beyonc?� tape. “You probably don’t like this,” he said, “but I love chart stuff. Beyonc?� and everything, wicked.” He asked me whether the van was bugged and then told me about more of his problems. His Dad in Plymouth had been “not totally legit”. When younger he had earned good money, six or seven hundred pounds a week. But he became addicted to going out and ended up drinking every night. Then he ended up in rehab and that was where he met Elizabeth, who was his key worker. She took him out of rehab and a relationship started. She tried to put him back on his feet but they argued and when things went wrong he would go on a bender. Pete looked at me and said “friends, yeah?” and clasped my hand. Victoria came out to tell me dinner was ready. I went back in to eat in our cosy kitchen and Pete crashed out in the van.
We didn’t see him the next day until around six in the evening when he staggered out of a taxi in the yard. I put him in the van. Victoria told him she didn’t want him in the house when he was drinking. That night, while we were getting supper ready, we saw some torches flashing in the front garden and heard voices. I opened the front door to see two policemen. “Have you got a camper van on the premises?” they asked. We told them what had happened so far, and asked what they knew of Pete. “Put it this way,” they said, “we know him.” They said that Elizabeth had called them in desperation as Pete had continued to hassle her, on the phone and by calling round. They asked us: “Have any of the vehicles changed position?” We said no. So I took them out to the van where they had a little chat with Pete, then returned to give me the keys, which I had left in the ignition.
The next day was Delilah’s actual birthday and the day after that was Arthur’s. Pete called round in the morning and seemed to be back to normal again. He said he would stop drinking and get on with the unfinished jobs: he was now putting some paneling around the bath.
In the afternoon he vanished again. My friend Freddy and I went to South Molton to collect some timber for the raised beds in the vegetable patch. Pete helped me to saw them up. That night he returned to the van quite cheerfully. Note that in all this time he had taken not the slightest interest in our lives and had never asked a single question. Tuesday morning he emerged and banged around in the bathroom for an hour. I asked him what he was going to do. We had agreed to let him stay till Wednesday, so his deadline was approaching. He said he had no idea. He didn’t want to go to Plymouth since he knew bad people there who would lead him astray. There was this place in Bideford, some kind of centre… He pulled some folded A4 pieces of paper from his pocket and showed me some correspondence from a social worker. I said, well let’s call her. I called her twice. That afternoon Pete arrived home at around five, tottering slightly. Have you been drinking, I asked. “Just a can,” he slurred in a reply. “Well, I’m going to put you in the van as we have to put the kids to bed,” I said. He rang the bell an hour later asking for a cigarette lighter, which I gave him.
The next morning, at 7am, we heard the doorbell ring. I went down in my dressing gown and opened the door to the miserable sight of a shivering Pete, looking more emaciated than ever in his tracksuit and nylon jumper. “Can – you – call – an – ambulance,” he stuttered; clutching his sides. “It’s my liver.” I called the ambulance while Pete sat at the kitchen table, head in hands. I went out to the barn, which absolutely stank of booze and fags, and collected his holdall and went through the plastic bags he’d left on the floor. Inside them was a mess of empty paracetamol packets, bottles of booze, a can of Stella, chocolate wrappers and the packaging from a Ginsters pork pie.
The ambulance arrived with a man and a woman. Pete told them he had taken 40 paractemol. They took him to the ambulance and the ambulance woman said, “oh, I recognise him now. We’ve picked him up twice before in Barnstaple.” She didn’t believe he’d taken 40 paracetamol He climbed in the back, they tied him up on the stretcher, and I put his holdall and plastic bag in with him.
That night, we had another visit from the local police, asking whether we knew of Pete’s whereabouts. In the day, I had discovered from Elizabeth that the time he had gone to Plymouth was not to visit his mother at all, but actually for a court hearing. His ex-girlfriend had accused him of harassment – as had his own mother. She said that Pete lied and lied. The police said that he had been moving around from Somerset to Devon over the past couple of years, sponging off people and then moving on, a sort of professional homeless person. “You give him an inch and he takes a mile,” they said. They added that generally in such cases the man ended up dead from too much booze and painkillers. Elizabeth had tried to help him but had finally given up.
That night the phone rang and there was a pathetic little voice at the other end. “I’m in a hospital bed,” he said. “I’ve really hit the bottom this time. Maybe you could come and visit? It would kill half an hour.” I said I was busy and that he should call back tomorrow. The next day he called again saying that he had nearly died and that the he may have to be flown to the hospital in Birmingham.
The next day the police came and we told them that Pete might be going to Brimingham. “Oh good,” they said, “then he’ll be their problem.”
We have heard since that Pete was taken back yet again by Elizabeth to the despair of the local police. We are hoping not to see him again. We feel that we tried to help out a bit but that we did absolutely no good at all. As Arthur says when I tell people the story, “he didn’t know how to look after himself.” I wonder how many Petes are out there, lost, addicted and dependent. Somehow in the city you don’t meet them; you probably just step over them. In the country, however, where there are far fewer people, you are more likely to get involved.