This hardware shop is a skewed triangle of a building, dropped into the space left at the end of a row of irregularly shaped terraced houses. It sits there like a darkly painted brick from a child’s toy, the right shape for the right hole, glass fronted, crudely lettered in white paint, with an old fashioned, white and black striped awning already wound out despite the early hour, thrumming and spattering beneath a sudden fall of rain.
There is a policeman sheltering under it.
‘All right, guys?’ he says.
We expect him to lead us straight into the shop, but instead he waggles his fingers confederately. We all huddle up under the awning.
‘Just so you know, your man Patrick inside is not unknown to the police. In fact he’s due in court in a couple of days on a fraud charge. So his story this morning – two heavies mugging him for the float and making him take drugs – well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. But I would think it’s a classic case of Jackanory.’
‘We’ll bear it in mind.’
The policeman answers a call on his radio. ‘Yeah – LOB,’ he says, and waves us on. We make our way inside.
The shop is dark, despite a couple of yellowing strip lights precariously tacked to the ceiling and an angle-poise on the worn wooden counter. Even the shadows reek of oil. There is another policeman standing propped against some steel shelving with his arms folded. To his left, up against the counter and slumped on an upturned bucket, is a man in his sixties, dressed in a tight brown jersey and brown trousers. He is a study in dejection, the vee of his legs like an open drain for the energy pouring from his hands and his downturned face.
His eyes and mouth remained zip-locked.
‘It’s the ambulance, Patrick. What’s happened to you this morning?’
‘Come on, Patrick. Tell these good people what you told us.’
Patrick raises his head but his eyes remain closed. He talks quietly, in a voice as dessicated and brittle as the fly husks on display with the cans and things in the window.
‘When I opened up this morning, two men pushed their way into the shop. They demanded money. When I said I didn’t have any, they hit me over the head with a piece of wood, then forced me to swallow some tablets. I don’t know what they were. They said they might do me some good.’
The policeman holds up a plain wooden stake.
‘This is what they’re supposed to have used.’
‘Is that right? Is that what they used, Patrick? Where did they hit you?’
‘Across my forehead, and across my arms.’
I look more closely at his face. The only marks I can see are a few speckled scabs of eczema. There is no evidence of any violence.
Patrick’s eyes remain closed.
‘Were you knocked out, Patrick?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Did you fall down?’
‘No. I kept my feet.’
He suddenly opens his eyes and looks at me, but it is a two dimensional expression, curiously fixed and unexpectant. I feel as if I’m being scrutinised by a mannequin.
‘It’s happened before. They’re always doing it. They demand money to leave me alone. They’re drug dealers. The police know about it but chose not to do anything, I don’t know why. I’ve been left to cope on my own.’
We give him a check over, which he suffers to happen with the same, flat expression of sufferance.
‘Everything seems fine, Patrick. How do you feel in yourself?’
Rae goes into the back of the shop to see if she can find some examples of the pills Patrick says he was forced to swallow. The chain-link fly curtain swooshes behind her with a rattle.
The first policeman comes into the shop from outside.
‘How are we doing?’ he says, and when I tell him he folds his arms and says: ‘Okay. Look. In the spirit of openness, Patrick. What I suggest is that we say nothing more about this. You know and I know that this is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to get you out of appearing in court. But that’s not going to happen, is it? Let’s be realistic.’
‘You tell me. You seem to know everything.’
‘Well I don’t know everything, Patrick, but I know a fair bit about this. And this is a big waste of everybody’s time. Where’s the evidence of a struggle? Where are the witnesses?’
‘I don’t know. You tell me.’
‘I will tell you, Patrick. They don’t exist, Patrick. So what I suggest is that we drop the pretence and say no more about it. It’s a generous offer, Patrick. Let’s forget the whole thing so everyone can go about their business. But if you carry it on, I can tell you now it won’t do you the slightest bit of good. In fact, it can only make things worse. So what do you say?’
Patrick resumes the position he was in when we first came into the shop.
I touch him on the shoulder.
‘From the ambulance point of view, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you, Patrick. But our protocol is that if you want us to take you to hospital, we will. Is that what you want to happen?’
Without looking up he says: ‘I was attacked this morning by two men.’
‘Well then we’ll go to hospital. Come on. Let’s go out to the vehicle.’
At first he seems poised on the edge of a pseudo-fit, dropping his arms down by his side, tipping his head back, working up some tremors in his legs.
‘What are you doing, Patrick?’
He hesitates, gives up on that idea, stands up.
‘Let’s go,’ he says.
Outside, his shop assistant rolls up on his bike with a juddering squeal of brakes.
‘Patrick! Has it happened again?’, he says. ‘Two men pushing their way in, demanding money?’
We all look at him.
Is that a wig?