Gail is lying on her back on a boat-sized, brown twill sofa. As soon as we come through the door we can see that her left hip is dislocated; her leg shows the classic signs of shortening and rotation. She raises a smile and puts her left hand up in the air. Her husband Frank has shown us in, only interrupting his meandering description of the night’s events to take a pull on his cigarette. Frank has a face as red and slack as his tracksuit. His rheumy eyes check us slantways, and his chin is scrubby with the kind of perma-stubble you see in e-fit pictures.
‘To be frank with you – like I have to – it’s my name – hurgh - don’t worry, I’m always like this, I’ve had a bit to drink, it’s the weekend, so sue me. But hey – if you can’t have a little something now and again, well, what’s the world come to? Hurgh. Anyway, to be absolutely and perfectly honest with you, because there’s no point in lying about this stuff, hey? I mean, mate, we’re all adults. You’ve got a job to do. You need to know all the facts. And fucking hell, I mean, who’s hurting who? Hey?’
His mobile phone rings – the twangy guitar from James Bond.
‘Shit. Sorry. Gary? Yeah, mate. Yeah. The paramedics are here. They’re going to work on her now. Mate – I’ll call you back. No, mate. No. I’ll call you back.’
I take advantage of the interruption to say hello to Gail properly and take in the place. For the first time I notice that the walls are hung with dozens of small clip-frames. Hypercoloured photos, confusing at first, but then with a lurch seeing that they are of women – a woman – Gail – naked, in suspenders, or extravagantly zippered outfits, posing with a shadowy host of others, a Polaroid exhibition of proffered breasts, mouths, throats. In the whole room there is only one non-sexual photo, still of Gail – a crinkled up school photo, a little girl smiling demurely against a background of eggshell blue. Unframed, it is propped up against the DVD player.
Gail looks up at us from the sofa, a frail looking woman in her mid forties, pale freckled face and ginger hair. She is wearing pyjama shorts and a flowery t-shirt.
Frank clips his mobile shut and follows us over.
‘Gary’s such a twat. I don’t know. I suppose he has his uses. Hurgh. Anyway – I’ve dressed her for you, mate. Couldn’t have you seeing her in all her gear. Not that we care. Give you all a thrill. Well – you, maybe. Maybe not you (looking at Rae). Or maybe - yeah?’ He gives her a pouchy smirk, then blows out another litre or two of smoke.
‘It half killed her, mind. But she’s a brave girl – hey? Has to be, living with me.’
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Gail says, her voice dry with the pain and the alcohol, ‘He’s an idiot.’
‘So anyway,’ he carries on, ‘Just to put you in the picture. She’s had both her hips replaced, three months ago, arthritis. The right one popped out a month ago, had that done, and I’ll tell you something now for free – those bastards at A&E aren’t coming within a mile of her. Last time they broke her leg, like that’s gonna help. I want the consultant there to re-do this. I want him waiting for us, by the front door, with his hands out of his pockets, as we’re pulling up outside.’
We help Gail manage the pain with entonox, immobilise her, scoop her off the sofa on the orthopaedic stretcher and outside onto the trolley with a minimum of distress. Frank is a constant distraction, talking incessantly. It’s like having a puppy worry your foot whilst you’re trying to tidy up.
‘I drove lorries all round Europe. Worked hard, partied hard, different woman every night. Fantastic. But AIDS put paid to all that malarkey. I bought a pub in Deptford, ran that for a while. Then this geezer decided to shoot me in the legs, so I sold up, came down here. It’s not turned out bad.’
He squints at me.
‘I hope you don’t think badly of us,’ he says, as we load Gail onto the lift. ‘It’s been a while since the operation. A long while. A lean stretch, if you get me. I mean – I’ve been good, but there is a limit. We really thought it would be okay. So there I was giving her a right good seeing to and then she felt it go. Boom. I knew something wasn’t right because ordinarily she takes very good care of me. No complaints there. Hurgh. I remember, when I met her the first time, she looked me up and down, said – okay, mate, yeah, okay - took me home and tried me out, so to speak.’
He stands there whilst the lift rises into the air. Gail groans and takes another drag on the entonox. He suddenly seems reduced by the action and sound of the lift, the light spilling out of the back, everything. He flicks his cigarette off into the darkness.
‘I must have been all right,’ he says, patting his pockets for another. ‘We’ll have been together sixteen years next month’ At that moment his phone rings, and he starts, as if the patting woke it up.