mary, smoking a cigarette
She pads quietly slipper to slipper on the spot, casting her big eyes around the desolate A&E car park, taking breathy little puffs on a filter tip, tapping off the ash before it’s grown overmuch, watching the flecks of ash dance away on the wind. With that fake fur coat rounding off her figure and concealing her legs down to her ankles, she looks like a cartoon bear loitering outside a cave.
‘Oh. It’s you. What you doing here?’
‘I work here. Kinda.’
‘You all right?’
‘What are you doing up here?’
‘It’s my breathing, love. I can’t breathe.’
‘The usual then?’
‘Yeah. The usual.’
She taps the cigarette off to the other side.
‘I didn’t recognise you,’ she says. ‘Outside of my flat.’
‘Who brought you up?’
‘Richard, is it? Stefan? New boys. I haven’t met them two before.’
She raises the cigarette. In the unexpected quiet of the place I can hear the red tip crackle back to the filter.
‘I’d better get back. I don’t want to miss my place.’
‘See you later, Mary.’
She drops the butt and shuffles back into the cave.
mary, sitting on a window ledge
When the crew arrive she is sitting with her legs dangling out of the window of her boyfriend Paul’s flat, ready to jump. Three floors, straight onto concrete. They know the window; they’ve been here almost as many times as they have to Mary’s own flat the other side of town. But whilst the call is normally to breathing problems, and whilst the window is normally open to let the cigarette smoke out before the crew arrive, today they can see Mary sitting on the ledge, her legs hanging out into space, her red slippers idly swinging backwards and forwards.
‘It was like she was just waiting for the truck. Anyway, we’d only just parked up by the police car when we heard a shout and a scream and then saw this furry bundle madly flapping as it fell. Totalled her legs and hips, of course. Lucky that was all really. Didn’t you wonder where she’d been all this time?’
mary, hiding under a duvet
‘Mary? Mary it’s me, Spence. Remember me?’
No movement from beneath the duvet.
‘Come on, Mary. Let’s see your face.’
The social worker stands over by the open window. She seems to be guarding it, as well as the official-looking packet she has clutched to her chest.
‘Come on, Mary,’ she says.
Two policemen wait outside in the hallway.
Mary’s flat is filled with smoke, as usual. It seems much as it always does – a secret den in a junked-up storeroom, a scattering of medication blister packs, cigarette cartons, a pub ashtray with a pyramid of butts. Things are slightly different today, though. Her single bed has been moved into the centre of the room, whilst Paul’s is where it normally is, squashed up against the far wall and piled with clothes.
‘Come on, Mary. We have to take you to the hospital. Take my arm and I'll help you out to the truck.’
Frank sighs and goes to sit down on Paul’s bed.
Frank jumps up. Paul is hiding in bed, too.
‘Frank just sat on Paul,’ I say to Mary. ‘Come on. You can’t miss this.’
I gently pull the duvet from her face. She lies there, pale and blinking.
‘Come on, Mary.’
mary, sitting on a chair
‘What do you think of my hair do?’
‘You look like Annie Lennox.’
She stares up at me, her banana yellow bob shining in the light from the open window.
‘Why don’t you get your hair done?’
‘I used to. I used to henna my hair.’
‘I can just see you with red hair. Why don’t you do it anymore?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I will.’
She sighs. Frank is looking at a Japanese print of two sparrows eyeing up a praying mantis.
‘Nice,’ he says.
‘Do you like it?’
‘Yeah. Where d’you get it?’
‘I can’t remember. When I look at it I think: Which one’ll get the bug? The one on the left looks like the quickest. But then I think: Maybe neither of them will. Maybe the bug’ll get them.’
‘A praying mantis won’t get a sparrow. Even in Japan.’
‘Maybe this one will.’
I finish writing the paperwork. I’ve written all the details - date of birth, doctor, next of kin, medication, past medical history – everything from memory. I can even talk as I do it. We all can. Mary is our most regular customer.
‘Have you moved into Paul’s flat permanently now, then?’
‘Yeah, I have.’
‘Where’s Paul today?’
‘What? So you can sit on him?’
‘Schoolboy error,’ says Frank, moving over to look out the window, the window that Mary jumped from.
‘I won’t be doing that again,’ she says, as if she read our thoughts. ‘Things are better now.’
mary, sitting on a chair, in a christmas hat
The window is closed. The flat is smoke-free.
‘I’ve given up,’ says Mary.
‘I never thought I’d see the day.’
‘Yes. Well. I did it.’
She scratches her nose.
‘I have the occasional one,’ she says. ‘Only now and again.’
‘But not nearly as many as before.’
‘My breathing’s just as bad, though.’
‘They say you go through a rough patch immediately after.’
‘It’s been a month.’
‘Up to a month or so.’
‘But then it gets better.’
‘It definitely gets better, does it?’
I carry on writing out the sheet.
‘I’ll look forward to that, then,’ she says, and straightens her red party hat.
‘Do you like my hat, Spence?’
‘It’s okay. I’m not mad on Christmas hats myself.’
‘I know. It’s a bit of a thing. I’ve always had this big head. Paper hats split when I put them on.’
‘Just don’t pull them down so far.’
‘Maybe I’ll try that.’
‘You should. It’s Christmas. You’ve got to wear a hat.’
‘Maybe they do crackers for people with over-sized heads.’
‘Jumbo crackers,’ says Rae, helpfully.‘Freak crackers.’
‘Let’s have a look at this so-called head of yours,’ says Mary. She struggles up and then studies me, left and right. Her fur coat smells like my cat, a musty, night garden kind of smell. She tuts, pats me lightly on the top of the head, and sits back down.
‘It is big,’ she says. ‘But not disastrous.’