31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 8

If symptoms

persist.. .

I WAS in Casualty last week when a woman who had tried to hang herself was brought in. I do not think her effort was a very concerted one: her four-year- old son managed to stop her before she could kick the stool away. The little hero was then packed off to a neighbour's while mama received medical attention.

I asked her what was wrong. It was everything. I asked whether she couldn't be a little more specific. She said she hadn't seen her boyfriend for a long time. I asked what he did for a living.

'He's a burglar,' she replied. His more prolonged absences usually denoted a custodial sentence.

He was the best man she'd ever met. By this she meant that, alone of her male acquaintance, he did not beat her up. He only shook her hard when he was angry with her.

She had other problems. She and her son lived on the 12th floor of a tower block. It was miserable living there with so young a child. The people next door were always arguing and slamming doors, the people above played their music so loudly at three in the morning that the people below her thought it was she who was so noisy and were constant- ly threatening her.

'Your son's father,' I said tentatively and without much hope. 'Does he help?' °He left me before he knew I was preg- nant.'

`Did you want to be pregnant?'


'Did you know how difficult life would be on your own with a child?'

'Yes, I've had three kids before, doe- / tor.'

'What happened to them?'

'They was took away from me because I come from a broken home.'

More recently, she had made enemies at her local pub. She was anxious about it because a woman had been murdered there not long before.

'I was there one night when the win- dows went in,' she said.

'The windows went in?' I said.

'Yes, all of them.'

'How did they go in? Was there an earthquake?'

'Someone smashed them, like.'

And what had happened then?

'I don't remember — I'd had a bit to drink. They say I started screaming. The barman said, "Oi you, get out of this eff- ing pub." Then they say that I started on

him. He reckons that I showed him up in front of his friends. That's why he came after me and beat me up in the street. He said that when this murder's died down, he's coming for me properly.'

`What's he like, this barman?' `I've heard he likes hitting women, but when it comes to men he needs a friend or a weapon. He won't fight hand to hand.' I asked het' how she thought I could help her. `Everything I do seems to fail. I want a new life.'

'How will you get,it?' 'I want some help. with moving.' That is to say, she wanted me to write to the Housing Department to say that she should be moved for medical reasons (she had asked for a transfer three years ago). I told her that all public housing in the city was the same, and that she should not expect a new life to emerge automatically from such a move. 'And I need help with my finances. I've never been no good with my finances.'

In short she needed a different future, a different present and a different past. She needed to have been born someone else: one of the treatments not available on the NHS.

Theodore Dalrymple