Two shadowy figures are standing on the cycle path that runs around the park. One of them waves, so Frank spins the ambulance round in a u-turn and we pull alongside the kerb. I lower the window.
‘Did you call the ambulance?’
‘You gotta do something about my ear, man.’
‘Okay. Let’s get you in the back.’
‘Just a second.’
He hardly waits for me to slide back the door and put on the light. He takes a big step into the ambulance and sits down on the trolley.
‘No. Don’t sit there. Sit on one of these chairs.’
‘Why? I just want you to sort my ear out.’
‘Do as the geezer says, Jay.’ And then to me. ‘He’s all right, really. It’s his birthday today.’
‘Really? Well, happy birthday Jay.’
‘Whatever. Just fix my ear.’
Now the lights are on I can see exactly who I’m dealing with. Jay and his friend are both still young, but their twenty years of life resonate around them like twenty strikes of a big black gong marked ‘Trouble’. The neatest thing about them is their insectivorous stubble. Neither of them look straight at me when I talk, but off to the side, as if they are used to covering all eventualities.
‘So what happened to you, Jay?’
‘My girlfriend smashed a glass on my head.’
‘Were you knocked out?’
‘What do you mean, was I knocked out?’
‘Well – just that. Did you lose consciousness?’
‘She’s a girl. Fix my ear.’
‘I need to know all the facts so I can treat you.’
Jay’s friend sits right on the edge of his chair like an excited child.
‘Don’t give him a hard time, Jay. He’s helping you, man. He’s here to help.’
‘Do you have any neck pain?’
‘Okay. Turn your head and I’ll see where all this blood is coming from.’
His only injury is a small cut just up from the root of the ear. It must have happened some time ago; the blood has congealed, lifting off his cheek like a papery, wine-coloured residue when I rub it.
‘It’s a minor cut,’ I tell him. ‘You don’t need to go to hospital. You just need to keep it clean so it doesn’t get infected.’
‘I haven’t got nowhere. How am I supposed to do that?’
‘I don’t know. How do you normally clean yourself up?’
He turns to his friend. ‘Listen to this.’ And then back to me. ‘I’m going to bounce you off the ceiling.’
‘Really?’ I toss the bloodied gauze pad into the bin.
Frank unfolds his arms. ‘Okay, mate. I think it’s high time you went on your way.’
The friend stands up.
‘Come on. Don’t listen to Jay. He’s just upset because his girl whacked him. He’s a good kid, not at all violent. He kept the bullies off me all through school.’
‘That’s nice. But I’ve done all I need to do here. Your part of the deal is to clean yourself up.’
‘How rude is that?’
‘It’s not rude, Jay. It’s just the way it is.’
‘Give me some more wipes.’
I want to say to him: What’s the magic word? But I give him some wipes in silence. He snatches them up, and then the two of them jump off the ambulance.
We watch them slouch away back into the shadows.
Once when I went fishing with Dad we unexpectedly hooked a pike. It thrashed furiously amongst the reeds until he cut the line and let it splash back into the water. It was only up for a second or two, but it seemed to hang there forever, snapping its body from side to side, fixing us dispassionately with the chill black button of its eye.
Dad shut and pocketed his knife, then sat back down on his fold-up chair.
‘I’m glad I’m not a fish in this particular stretch of water,’ he said. Then he drew his old canvas fishing bag to him, and slowly and methodically set about tying another hook to the line.