The doctor’s surgery looks closed from here. All I can see as we turn into the car park is a pair of yellow rubber gloves bobbing about behind the dull glass panes of the foyer. Eventually I make out the cleaner wearing them, finishing her rounds, gathering bags. But as we park up, a middle aged man appears in the doorway to watch. When we come to a stop he sets out towards us, walking across the deserted car park with a convicted, deadbeat shuffle, rounded inwards at the shoulders, head down, his demeanour as washed-out as his raincoat. All he has in his hands is a small black duffel bag, but it may as well be a medicine ball. He stops and stands still, swaying slightly as we climb out of the cab to say hello.
‘I’m guessing you’re Eddie’.
‘And I’m guessing the doctor’s gone home.’
He nods again.
Rae opens up the back of the ambulance.
‘Here. Let me carry that for you.’
He gives the bag to me, and I help him up the back steps, suddenly finding myself up to the nose in a wake of alcohol fumes and stale sweat.
He lands himself on the trolley and draws his knees up to his chest.
‘So what’s the problem, Eddie? Why does the doctor want you up to the hospital today?’
‘I’ve got pains in my front, here.’ He makes a general sweep with his right hand. ‘I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it any more. Something’s got to change.’
‘Did the doctor give you a letter?’
He pulls one out of his raincoat. The doctor has sketched Eddie’s abdomen as a hexagon and shaded in the top margins with little crosses. Here be dragons. Eddie is having another bout of pancreatitis.
‘Have you had a drink today, Eddie?’
‘Just a quarter bottle of vodka. Honestly, my friend, this is true agony. I’m dying.’
We plug him into the monitors and take down the information, then Rae jumps out and goes back to the driver’s seat. We set off.
Eddie settles back on the trolley. His face is a boiled cherry-red, cooked through years of alcohol abuse. The silver-rimmed glasses that he wears give his face a strangely plastic complexion, like the model of a man made by an alien with no sense of human colouration. He opens his eyes again and studies me.
‘I buried my dad two weeks ago. Yeah. Two weeks ago.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
‘Two weeks ago. Yeah. I went to the funeral. I carried the coffin with my brother and sisters.’ I try to imagine him under one end of a coffin, but all I can see is Eddie struggling with his little black duffel bag.
‘I carried the coffin. Even though I’m a sick man. Even though I broke both my ankles a couple of years ago. But these things – you have to do them, don’t you? He was only eighty four. Cancer. I hardly ever saw him though. He didn’t want to know. I couldn’t stick around for long. I was only there for the service. When they all went back to the house for drinks I made my excuses. I think I was only there ten minutes. At least I went, though.’
He relaxes back on the trolley, and after a while seems to fall asleep. But there’s a sudden jolt and he opens his eyes again.
‘Two broken ankles,’ he says, turning his head to look at me. ‘Two of them. Make sure you get that down on your form.’