Terry Maguire recalls a bizarre encounter in his pharmacy involving a drug user, a large pot plant, an irate shop-owner and a deeply suspicious character

Declan entered the pharmacy just after opening time, highly intoxicated and struggling to carry a terracotta pot containing a large flowering plant.  As he is one of our methadone patients, I immediately knew this would be difficult. He attempted to focus on my face as I approached him, stopping his progress towards our quiet room, where he normally consumes a daily supervised dose.    

In a slurred, almost incomprehensible voice, he asked for his supply.  I considered the futility of a pep talk or pointing out that his current condition was inconsistent with our agreement, so I opted for the direct approach. I told him he couldn’t have his medicine, would need to see his outreach worker and I suggested he make contact. I too, I told him, would speak with her.  

I was, however, fascinated as to the origins of the blue agapanthus and he told me it was a present for his mother, with whom he was having problems.   She and he had not been on friendly terms since last weekend and he felt that this present might be a way of saying sorry because he knew that he had been unreasonable in his behaviour over the last few weeks, without specifying exactly what this referred to.

I have sympathy for Declan and profound ignorance created by a complete absence of any formal education — something he has resisted since primary school days — means Declan finds it next to impossible to make decisions that are useful or helpful for himself or those around him. His behaviour is strictly determined by a current emotional desire with complete absence of cognitive oversight on whether, or if, this behaviour will land him in trouble, which invariably it does.  I have come to learn in my short exposure to addicts such as Declan that they are highly manipulative, with a contemptuous disregard for anyone who might wish to curtail or restrict them satisfying their hedonistic tendencies. Where this view is at odds with the disease model of addiction ideology and I struggle with real empathy, I risk being burned at the stake.

His long-suffering partner left the area recently with their son after Declan failed to comply with a contact restriction imposed by the courts. I felt sorry that she was harassed out but Declan was keen to point out, to anyone who would listen, that she had been refusing access to his son, which he was certain would affect the child adversely. I’m not sure I agree and Declan, even if he was the biological father of the child, is far from a role model. Only two weeks ago, in a sinister twist in his complex life, a death threat had appeared on social media from a paramilitary grouping who named a number of young men they claimed were engaged in drug distribution locally and who should present for punishment at an agreed time, and a failure to do so would have major consequences. Indeed, two evenings before, a man in his 20s on the list had been shot outside a bookmaker’s premises on Springfield a few streets away. It does appear to be a bizarre arrangement, but it seems to work efficiently across East and West Belfast. Declan, however, was refusing to comply.

I curtly told him I might see him later with his outreach worker and suggested he leave. He was unhappy with my attitude, as he had a busy schedule with numerous appointments and I was now making things very difficult for him. He shifted grip to keep the plant pot aloft and the flowering heads of the agapanthus swayed back and forth on their long stems.

It was at this point the shouting started. Eddie had entered the pharmacy in a rage and was hurling expletives at Declan and I quickly realised that the plant had been stolen from the flower shop a few doors away. Eddie grabbed the pot and there was a tussle. Declan, reacting slowly due to his intoxication, brought his forehead with some considerable force onto Eddie’s nose and Eddie fell back, blood started to flow and Declan yanked the pot back out of Eddie’s grip, and then it slipped and smashed on the floor, leaving shards of terracotta, a pile of soil and collapsed flowers. Eddie quickly recovered and a proper fist fight ensued, with Eddie delivering three punches in quick succession to Declan’s face. I had to intervene to calm Eddie down as Declan collapsed to the floor unconscious.

When the ambulance arrived, Eddie had left the scene, Declan had revived, so the paramedics cleaned up a cut under his left eye and departed. Declan then left and my staff started to clean up the broken plant pot. What I had not seen, but one of my staff had seen, was when Eddie had stormed into the pharmacy, a sinister, small man outside the shop who had been observing Declan through the front window put something heavy back into his coat pocket and walked off. If it was what my staff member thought it was, then it was lucky that Declan had stolen the plant, or my day could have been much more difficult.