Half past goddamned five in the morning, the last hour of the shift, a full fat and featureless sixty minutes but it may as well be six hundred and sixty. If my hands get any heavier they’ll be bumping along behind me on the pavement. A Neanderthal would laugh to see us pick up these bags and trip on the stairs. Not such a great evolutionary leap after all. I know with numbing clarity there is nothing for us and nothing to do about it and no-one can help. We have no future. We will be late finishing. We are the kind of zombies even zombies would disown.
It rings the bell.
Up the stairs towards the flowery robed figure of a woman who peers down at us through glasses the size of dustbin lids.
‘Bert’s in the sitting room.’
She turns and slippers ahead of us into a cluttered and super-heated sitting room. A great, rounded knuckle of a man reclines over on the sofa, his t-shirt riding up over his gut, his left hand tragically resting palm-uppermost on his forehead, the other draped on his right flank.
‘There,’ she says, as if he might be overlooked.
Rae is attending. She kneels down next to the man whilst I stand with my giant hands folded carefully in front of me, swaying slightly and periodically straightening up with a startled squeak.
‘What’s the trouble, Bert?’
‘I’ve been getting these terrible pains in my side.’
‘When did it all start?’
‘I don’t know. When did it all start, June?’
‘My whatssit. When did it all start, she wants to know.’
‘I don’t know, Bert. Last week?’
Bert turns to look down at Rae.
‘Last week,’ he says.
I know Rae very well now. I can even read her hair. Her hair is telling me that Rae would consider a life stretch fair exchange for the pleasure of violent homicide. Anything to leave this flat. Anything for a bed. This sofa, for instance, bloodied or otherwise.
‘Have you seen your doctor about it?’
‘I thought I’d see what happened first.’
‘And what sort of pain is it?’
‘But what sort of pain? Can you describe it? Is it sharp? A dull ache? Is it like cramp, or more like someone’s stabbed you as hard as they can with a kitchen knife.’
‘I don’t know.’ Bert looks over to his wife and laughs. ‘It’s just a pain type pain.’
He laughs. His wife smiles, and shifts her weight to her other leg. She looks at me and smiles. I smile back. The process is complete. I am now Stan Laurel.
‘Okay. So you have a pain here. Does it come and go? Or is it there all the time?’
‘Oh no. It’s there all the time. Sometimes I hardly notice it. Sometimes it’s completely gone. I don’t know. It’s just a pain.’
‘Let me have a feel, if I may? Tell me how it feels as I do it.’
Rae exposes the great dome of his abdomen and begins rolling her fingers into the flesh, working from the furthest point methodically back to the danger area.
‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Wait a minute…. No. No. No.’
‘So it doesn’t even hurt in the place where you thought it did?’
‘No. Typical. Just like when you go the Dentist.’ He looks at his wife again, who is now more intent on cleaning her enormous lenses with a dish cloth.
Covering the far wall is a collection of novelty clocks: a giant wrist watch, a clock in a racing tyre, a cuckoo clock, a Simpsons clock, a Playboy clock, a Mickey Mouse clock, a pixie alarm clock with two red and white spotted mushrooms on the top. I stand with my hands patiently folded in front of me, swaying slightly, staring at the clocks. I have stood here for all time and always will be here. Future generations will pay to come and walk around me. The lights will come on at the beginning of the day, go out at the end of it. Someone will dust me once a month. A scrawling tide of graffiti will rise up my legs and arms.
‘You do the obs, I’ll do the writing,’ says Rae, loudly.
I rummage around in the bag for the kit.
‘All your observations are fine,’ says Rae, dotting something on the form. ‘But that still leaves you with this pain, of course. How is it now?’
‘So that’s good, then.’
‘Yeah. But it might come back.’
‘Bert, we’re quite happy to take you to the hospital if you want, but you’ll be there a few hours.’
‘But something else you could do is wait until the surgery opens and make an appointment to see your doctor.’
‘They don’t do that.’
‘They’ll only see you in three days’ time.’
‘They have emergency appointments though.’
He closes his eyes and shakes his head.
‘They’re obliged to offer emergency appointments.’
Bert shakes his head sadly.
‘Tell them we’ve been out. Show them the paperwork.’
‘I could try I suppose.’
Rae tears off a copy of the form, folds it up and hands it to Bert. He takes it uncertainly, like a motorist accepting a parking ticket.
‘Anyway,’ he says. ‘If the doctors can’t do anything, I can always phone the ambulance again and they can take me to hospital.’
I only close my eyes for a second, but when I open them again I find myself walking down the stairs.