Psychosis Hair Dye Spies at the Holland House Hotel: Derren Brown and the Corona Virus #9

Content Warning – psychosis, delusions, homelessness, ligature, self-injury, first aid.

I stand in front of the hotel reception desk and wait for someone to appear. An Uber driving Derren Brown extra picked me up from the council homeless office and helped carry my plastic bags full of belonging to the reception foyer. The bags are pressed up against the glossy reception desk. I shift one around with my foot to hide the name of the psychiatric hospital printed along one side. Sat on a high stool by the revolving doors is a security guard with a baseball hat. I stare at the CCTV camera mounted on the ceiling above us. Derren knew I’d come here, planted the hotel name in my mind. He probably owns the whole hotel, or Netflix does. A short man, dressed in a grey suit, walks across the polished floor to the desk.

‘I’d like a room for the weekend’ I say quietly, glancing behind me before I speak.

‘Sure, no problem, have you stayed with us before?’

‘No’ he begins to type something on the computer screen in front of him and I interrupt.

‘I have a question. If anyone asks where I am will you tell them?’

‘Sorry?’ he looks up confused. 

‘If someone asks where I am will you tell them?’

‘No madam, we have a policy here that we never reveal the name of guests.’

‘Except to the police?’  

‘No, not even the police, unless they have a warrant.’ I breathe out slowly.

‘Thank you, ok, yes I would like a room for the weekend.’

‘Sure’ He goes back to the screen 

‘What’s the surname’. I consider making up a name, but it wouldn’t match my credit card. I have to trust Derren now, I have no one else. The actor playing the hotel reception assistant checks me in and offers to help carry my things to my room. As we step into the lift, I feel myself tense as he reaches for the button. His hand moves past the red emergency bell and presses for the fourth floor, a single beep that doesn’t set off any alarms. We walk down the long corridor, neon green fire exit signs every few metres. My room is large, a double bed that seems huge, crisp white linen, a pile of clean towels. There’s an armchair next to a tall lamp. Sat on top of the desk is a tray with two white mugs, sachets of tea and coffee, hot chocolate and two individually wrapped shortbread biscuits. As soon as the reception man leaves, I tear open the biscuits and stuff them into my mouth one after the other.

The hotel overlooks a block of flats, a woman is stood outside her front door smoking, and I know she’s spying on me. I check under the bed for cameras or taping equipment, try to unscrew the light fitting in the bathroom, nothing. I drag the chair over to the wardrobe and climb up to look on top, but there’s only dust. Satisfied the cameras are too well concealed to tamper with I tip out the contents of my bags on the floor, unroll my artwork from the hospital, and line it up on the windowsill. These windows do not open- in that way it’s the same as psychiatric hospital. I walk slowly around the room again, dragging my hand along the glass desktop, pick up the menu for room service. I’ve never ordered room service in a hotel; I wouldn’t know what to do. I feel strange and anonymous. It’s so quiet, I’m used to the hospital, the sudden alarms, the knocks at the door, the staff calling observations. This room is a bubble, a place for business trips and city breaks, not for a woman who has been thrown out of a psychiatric ward. I suddenly feel contaminated and very tired. I need to wash and change my clothes.

*

I take a long time in the shower, turn the metal temperature control backwards and forward. The water rushes out icy cold until my head is numb and the bridge of my nose hurts. My breathing goes from ragged to contained, deep breaths, as the water goes from freezing then back to scalding hot and then cold again. In hospital you can’t change the temperature of the shower. I wrap myself in a huge fluffy white towel. My phone is off. I don’t know how long it’s been since I left the hospital. Derren and I are in new territory- I’ve never relied on it just being us. No one knows where I am, but they all know exactly where I am. How long before they pretend to try to find me? Why don’t they just turn up now? I feel confused and abandoned and still in shock from earlier. Maybe this is the decompression space before they reveal the ending, before the big press conference. Derren is sending me for some respite, some privacy. He’s given me a place to rest and be on my own to process what’s happened. I lie down on the bed still wrapped in the towel. No one can get to me, hurt me, restrain me, lie to me, handcuff me. If they can’t find me, they can’t section me. I’m safe here. Derren and I will lie low until dark and then go to the pharmacy to find some steri-strips for the cuts on my arms. I slide my phone under the bed. Even turned off, the black screen is too imposing, I need it to be out of sight.

I wake up at 9pm and dress in a black hoodie and jeans. Off duty superhero outfit. I check three times that I have the plastic key card with me, zip it into the secret inside pocket of my hoodie. The streets are still busy, people going out on a Thursday evening, laughing, upbeat. I keep my hood pulled over my hair and walk ten minutes to Asda. The supermarket is empty of people, I keep my eyes down, a display of children’s toys makes me wince for my imaginary baby. I carry on past cheerful garden decorations and discount multi packs of jaffa cakes and sports clothes on offer, to the beauty isle. The first thing you do in a film when you go on the run from the police is dye your hair. There are rows and rows of boxes of hair dye, all the women have long shiny hair and tantalising smiles that invite you in. None have ligature marks or burst blood vessels around their eyes. I choose a pale lilac and a dark brown.

I stop by the first aid section, amongst the green packaging there’s a gap where the steri-strips should be. At the end of the aisle the pharmacy desk is empty. Unsure what Derren wants me to do, I linger at the edge of the counter and pretend to browse the keyrings at the closed Timpsons. A man pushing a trolley half full of fizzy drinks looks at me strangely and I feel paranoid. What is the message here? An older man with glasses comes out from the bright white pharmacy area to the counter.

‘Can I help you?’ he asks. I take my hood down, I’m not sure if I imagine it but I think he steps back a little. 

‘Do you have any steri-strips?’ I ask, keeping my voice low.

‘If there aren’t any on the shelf then we don’t have any right now, I’m afraid.’ He pauses, assessing my bruised face, waiting for me to continue.

‘I wanted to ask about ligaturing, I have these burst blood vessels on my face.’

‘From ligaturing?’

‘Yes, and my eyes feel pressured, is that normal?’

‘Umm well, can I ask, how did this happen?’

‘I was in the hospital’ I start.

‘Ok, yes l would recommend you go to the hospital’ he interrupts.

‘No, I was in the hospital until today.’ I don’t want to explain, I just want him to answer my question.

‘Well, I would suggest you go to the walk-in centre or the A&E now’.

‘No, I can’t go back to the hospital. I just got out of the hospital they discharged me homeless.’

‘Homeless? You don’t have anywhere to go?’ he looks concerned, and I realise I’ve broken the rules. I can’t just turn up somewhere and ask for medical advice. This actor pretending to be a pharmacist will call the police and they’ll take me back to the hospital or worse. Derren has medics watching on the cameras- if I needed medical intervention,they would have provided it in the pretend hospital. 

‘It’s ok, it doesn’t matter, I’ll go to the walk-in clinic.’ I say hurriedly.

‘But where will you stay this evening?’

‘It’s fine, I’m staying with friends, thank you for your help.’ I back away from him and browse the dressings again, so it doesn’t look like I’m leaving in a rush. He watches me for a moment. I turn around and walk slowly towards the self-service checkouts. If he calls the police how long will it take them to get here? I stand in front of the self-service machineand my own face stares back at me on the video screen and I wave and sign in BSL- ‘I know you’re watching, I’m tired, can we go home now?’ Nothing happens. I shrug at the camera. An attendant comes over, but the light on my machine isn’t flashing.

I don’t know whether to run but he smiles and says,

‘Those flowers are free if you’d like to take some’ he gestures at bunches of freesias with yellow stickers on the cellophane wrapper. Derren is giving me flowers, but I don’t want flowers, I want to go home, to my actual home, where I’m no longer allowed to live. 

‘No, thank you, I don’t have anywhere to put them’. I say quickly.

‘Are you sure? You look like you could use some flowers’ The attendant is smiling, trying to be kind but I’m distracted. My arm aches and I’m suddenly worried about the steri-strips. I have an idea.

‘Where’s the stationary aisle?’ I ask.

*

In films women spies dye their hair in motel bathrooms or petrol station public toilets, the camera cuts from them squeezing on the first application to shaking out the finished gleaming results. They don’t read the flimsy tissue paper leaflet, that ends up crumpled and covered in dye. They don’t show them rubbing toilet roll on their faces, trying to remove black marks from the edges of their ears and the base of their necks. It’s a salon chic finish with no 40-minute wait time. The first box of dye doesn’t take so I immediately open the second and plaster it on. An hour later, after wiping down all the hotel bathroom surfaces and checking the towel for marks, my light brown hair is nearly black. In the lit-up hotel bathroom mirror I look washed out and unwell, my eyebrows pale, the marks on my face more vivid. I do not recognise the women staring back at me. Now the cuts on my arms.

I wash my hands and take the roll of sellotape from my backpack, find the end and remove the dressing from my forearm. I press the edges of the cuts together and lay a large piece of sellotape across, circling the tape around my arm, again and again. My skin turns red at the edges, I’ve pulled it too tightly. I peel the tape off and try again. The cuts are thin red lines, it looks like they will heal closed. I stick a white dressing on top and wash my hands again.

It’s this moment of D.I.Y first aid, this misuse of stationary that shifts something and I begin to cry. The crying becomes sobs that shake my body, so I can hardly breathe. I get down on the floor and lie on my side, legs pulled up, make myself into a little ball and cry and cry at the angry nurse and her lack of compassion, at the taxi driver who cared, at the fact my family and friends have left me here alone to tend to my wounds. I wonder if anyone watching in the control room is crying too. They sit in front of the monitors in whatever part of the hotel they’re hiding in and watch me unravel again and again. I wonder how difficult it is for them not to come down the corridor to comfort me. I feel so abandoned. I wonder if the team of psychologists working with my family are kind. I wonder if my brother hugs my Mum, if they have forgiven my Dad or if he works with a different team. I wonder whether they watch in shifts, if they socialise together, all the extras. Thinking of them together is comforting because that means at some point, we’ll all be together again. For now though, they’re pretending my father is dead and I’m mad and alone, lying on the floor in an anonymous hotel room in the middle of the night waiting for Derren Brown to appear.

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