The store manager punches in a four digit code and shows us through a heavy door at the back. Almost immediately we are met by a security guard, who points with the aerial of his radio for us to stop where we are, throws a look back around a bend in the access corridor behind him, then steps silently over to speak to us. He leans in to me, predatory as a stork, and whispers the story in my ear: he had witnessed the suspect stuffing his pockets with goods, trying to leave the store without paying, caught him, led him out here and up the stairs to the waiting room; the man had sat down on the steps and started complaining about pain in his side, but hadn’t fallen or anything. He leans back and smiles at me, gives me a slow-eyed nod – we understand each other. I readjust the weight of the carry chair, and follow Rae round the corner to the patient.
Kenny is sitting in a huddle on the steps that lead up to the holding room. His left hand is underneath his denim jacket, holding his ribs; his right is gripping his knee. He sneaks a look up as we approach, then leans in to a theatrical expression of agony. Rounded over on the steps as he is, speaking as hurriedly and prolifically as he does, he reminds me of a puffer fish, inflating itself, pushing out spikes, anything to avoid capture.
‘Listen, you, ambulance man. What’s your name? Spence? Whatever sort of name is Spence? Anyway – never mind all that. Just listen to me, please. Just listen. Take a photo if you want. I’ll be calling on you to be my witness. I’m phoning my lawyer and everyone. Everyone’s going to know about this. I can’t believe it. All for a few quid’s worth of stuff. It’s pathetic. I’m sick. I need medication. I was beaten to death with a baseball bat. I have serious head injuries, multiple fractures, to my ribs, my back. Look.’
‘No, Kenny. Just listen for a minute. We’ve been called here today to check you over. The police are on their way.‘
‘The police! No! What for? It’s ridiculous. I’ve got the money. I just need my medication. That’s all I was after…’
‘Kenny, listen to me.’
‘Okay officer. Sorry. Go ahead.’
Kenny suddenly shuts up and looks straight at me. His head and face are as heavy as a crudely thumbed pot; there’s something about his off-centre black wig, his black, letterbox spectacles and the rodent slant of his yellowing teeth that give him the expression of some ruined vaudevillian comedian.
‘We need to find out if anything’s happened to you – wait a minute, ah ah – to find out if you’ve hurt yourself in some way, if you’re sick and need medical attention. We’re not interested in the accusations that have been made, who said or did what, or what’s going to happen next. We just need to know what’s wrong with you.’
The store manager suddenly presents two policemen to the group. Their appearance acts on Kenny like a physical blow. He gives a grunt, a shriek, an imprecation, then hurls himself into a monologue.
‘Great. At last. I was wondering when you’d show. You need to arrest this security guard. I can’t believe what’s happened to me. It’s outrageous. I picked up some things around the shop. I was standing – near – the entrance, thinking about the important medication I needed to get – these ambulance people will tell you. And I was just about to go back in and pay but this – this animal didn’t give me a chance. He grabbed me by my injured arm, the one I broke in Madrid, marched me out here. And then when I said I had problems, I felt faint, I was scared of heights, I’m claustrophobic and don’t like people crowding me – like you are now – sorry, can you just stand back from me – and I know I’m raising my voice, but I can’t control that, either. Sorry. Not since my brain was damaged. Look at my notes. I have Cognitive Psychiatric Dysfunction Syndrome. So this so-called security man forced me up the stairs regardless, and the pain in my side was just excruciating, because I hadn’t had my medication. That’s the only reason I was in the store in the first place. Read my notes if you don’t believe me. It’s all documented there. In Spanish. I was assaulted with a baseball bat. They smashed my head in and put me in a coma for a month. And I told him all this, about this very, very serious medical condition, but still he forced me up the stairs. I immediately felt dizzy and collapsed. I fell onto my side. I’ve got rib fractures – ribs eight and nine, if you don’t believe me. I was unconscious for about five minutes. I panic, you see. With the pain and the anxiety. I haven’t any medication and this is inhuman. I’m on dydrocodiclodo-something or other. You’ll know it when you see it.’
He has a barbed wire tattoo around his wrist, and strange blue-point tattoos at the roots of his chubby fingers. Now and again he takes his hand away from his side to point at the security guard, or us, then winces melodramatically and replaces it. Everyone stands around him, hypnotised by this torrent of words, until one of the policemen – a sergeant, who watches Kenny with the kind of glittering, professional curiosity you might see on the face of a butterfly collector – takes a weighty step forwards.
‘Kenny’, he says, holding up his hand.
‘Yes, sir, officer.’
‘Enough now. Let the ambulance people have a look at you, then we’ll talk about the shoplifting allegation.’
‘Yes, sir, officer, sir. Of course.’
The sergeant withdraws with his colleague to talk to the manager and security guard, whilst Rae and I check Kenny over. There’s nothing to substantiate any of his claims, no marks of any description. He seems absolutely fine. The only detail that corresponds to anything he’s said is a MAD airport identifier on his rucksack. But he insists – volubly – that he must go to hospital, so we are obliged to take him. When I tell Kenny that this delaying tactic won’t accomplish anything, his outrage at the slur echoes around the corridor until the sergeant comes back over and asks him to be quiet.
‘Yes, of course,’ he says.
On the way out of the store, Kenny puts on a show. He stumbles, drags his feet, all the while clutching his side and calling out to the appalled shoppers for help.
‘What is this – Guantanamo Bay? For Christ’s sake, show some mercy. I didn’t do anything, I’m an innocent man. I’m seriously injured and you’re making me walk. I’m going to get my x-ray from the hospital, stick it on the front of this godforsaken store and write across it in big letters – SEE WHAT THEY DO TO YOU HERE FOR SEVENTEEN POUNDS’ WORTH OF CRAP’