The betting shop reaches back fifty feet from the glass doorway we push open on the highstreet. We step onto blond laminate wooden flooring, walk past a bank of screens, a neatly curving counter and a Wailing Wall of information – blu-tacked racing pages, dry-wiper odds and runners, magnetic titles, fluorescent notices – excuse our way through half a dozen men fixed like badly dressed mannequins beneath The Commentary, the great thundering drone that fills the place, over to a little protective semi-circle of chrome chairs on an area of dirty blue carpet at the back. An elderly man is lying on his side on this carpet with his head resting on a rolled up jumper. Two members of staff in blue t-shirts are kneeling next to him. One of them is holding an aluminium walking stick, a carrier bag and a brown tartan cap. He waves us over.
‘This is Bill. One of our regulars. Aren’t you Bill?’
‘Where’s my cap?’
‘I’ve got it here, mate. Bill had a funny turn and slid off his chair. I don’t think he’s hurt himself, but we left him where he was, just in case.’
‘I don’t want to lose my cap.’ He smiles up at me. ‘It’s a job holding on to things. It’s not so easy, finding yourself a good cap.’
We check him over, help him to his feet and walk him out to the vehicle. He settles back on the trolley and surrenders to our regime of tests with the air of an old man indulging grandchildren around his deckchair. The skin of his face seems waxy, stressed by age and circumstance, but his eyes are still sharp; his smile, balanced beneath the philtrum of his large nose, is a generous crescent-shape.
All his observations are normal, but he says he wants to go to hospital for a more thorough check-up as he’s never fainted before and can’t remember the last time he saw his doctor.
We set off.
‘I grew up in London,’ he says, folding his arms and offering me another smile. ‘Holland Park. Know it?’
I tell him my sister lives in Ladbroke Grove.
‘Does she? Well, isn’t that funny? I know Ladbroke Grove, of course. Years ago, mind.’
He seems to fade slightly, then comes back.
‘I had two brothers and a sister. All gone now. Do you know, I’m the last survivor of my kind? Lost my eldest brother in the war. He was in Burma. I was with my Mum when she got the telegram. I’ll never forget it. It just said “Frank missing on Burmese-Thailand border.” Nothing else. Never heard another thing about it. I was in the RAF. Ground crew. Went to Africa. Came back. Got a job doing this and that. Decorating, you know. Getting by.’
He looks out of the window, but can’t make out where we are through the blinds.
‘I lost my daughter last year. She had one of those brain tumours. They whipped out as much as they could, but left some in, and of course it grew back. My wife’s in a home.’
He smiles at me.
‘How long do you think they’ll keep me in, then? I’ve got things to do.’
I tell him it depends.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Listen, I bet you thought I’d won a fair bit. Fainting in the bookies like that.’
We both laugh.
‘Anyway. Have I got everything? Where’s my cap?’
He pulls it firmly onto his head as we roll into A&E.