The address has crashed the satnav, its blue line disappearing then reappearing, throwing loops, changing direction, the chequered flag switching from one side to another, and even though the volume is turned down, I can just hear the voice patiently demanding we make a u-turn. But I know this close – a stub of bungalows tucked discretely away above the run of the main road, each with a concrete ramp and a white metal rail. We turn up onto it, and park outside the number at the far end.
A pale woman in bright red lipstick and a tightly belted black raincoat opens the door, but when I smile and say hello, instead of making any response she simply ducks her head and turns away, walks quickly and quietly into a room off down the hall, and carefully shuts the door behind her.
There are voices in the front room, so we push the door open and step inside.
‘Oh. You’re here. Good. Now – Peter? – do you have my bag? Do not lose that list of numbers. And I’ll need my medication. Oh. I feel so awful. Where are my shoes?’
David’s voice is as brittle and dusty as his hair. He sits on a simple wooden chair in the middle of the room, hands placed either side on the curved armrests and his slippered feet just-so, looking as poised as a King in his robing room.
‘Peter? Where are you Peter?’
‘Over here, David.’
‘Have you packed everything I asked you to pack, Peter? I don’t want these gentlemen taking me to hospital without my essentials. And don’t go losing that list of numbers. Or my prescription.’
‘Yes, David. It’s all there.’
‘Here. In your bag.’
Peter quietly and quickly unzips a battered old suitcase, flips open the lid and takes a step back to let David inspect the jumbled contents. He sneaks me a confederate smile as he does it; with his stooped posture and rapid, fussy movements, there is something insectivorous about him, like a giant woodlouse in a corduroy jacket.
‘So, David. Before we deal with all that, let’s just see what the problem is and why we’re here.’
David turns his head to look at me, but closes his eyes at the same time.
‘I’m not well,’ he whispers. ‘The doctor insists I be taken to hospital immediately, but not to the local hospital. I can’t go there. Last time I was there they put me with dead people. So if you try to take me there I shall simply get up and leave. I can’t walk so you’ll have to carry me. And don’t lose my bag or my papers. They are extremely important and I must have them with me at all times. And Peter. Peter?’
‘Make sure the heating is switched down to three, do you understand, Peter? Three. And lock the front door securely.’
I try to understand exactly what the problem is, but every question I ask, no matter how blunt, simply acts as a stimulus for another fretful account of his last admission to hospital, or domestic instructions to Peter, who all this time scuttles around the edges of the room, patting down the curtains or rummaging through a composting pile of underwear. As an alternative source of information, Peter is as hopeless as his friend. When I try to ask him for information, he momentarily stops his scavenging, spreads his lips in a ghastly approximation of a smile and nods at David.
‘I must have my work with me,’ David says, sensing that the focus had shifted away from him. ‘I’m in the middle of important filing.’
There is no doctor’s letter, no indication that the doctor had been there at all. Other than an existing heart condition, nothing David can tell us and nothing we can deduce from his signs and symptoms or bubble pack of medication suggest an acute reason for David to go to hospital.
‘Excuse me just a moment,’ I say, and leave the room to radio control. But before I press the button, I knock on the door of the adjoining room. The white faced woman opens it and then stands sideways on to me, as if she were trying to make herself as narrow a target as possible.
‘Hello. Sorry. I just wondered if you’d be able to shed any light on the situation with David,’ I ask her. ‘Can I ask – what’s your relation to the patient?’
‘Relation?’ she says, with a start. ‘I’m not a relation. I just came round for lunch.’
She digs her hands deep into her raincoat pocket and stares at the floor.
‘Okay. Thanks anyway. Sorry to bother you.’
I close the door quietly again.
Control confirms that the doctor has given instructions for David to be taken to a hospital out of district. Apparently he absconded half way through his last admission.
‘To Scotland,’ they say. ‘On the train.’
Control tell me that the doctor has made this unusual arrangement purely on the phone, concerned that David had prematurely ducked out of a series of cardiac tests. They give me the doctor’s name so I can check with him directly, but when I try to make contact he’s unavailable.
‘Come on then, David. Let’s get you onto the ambulance.’
I wonder how patient Howard Carter would have been if Tutankhamen had given a running commentary on the exhumation. I’m sure given the same provocation he would’ve ended up throwing the casket on the back of the truck and knocking off early. But we have a more valuable load; we let David’s endless monologue blow about our shoulders as we help him onto the chair and wheel him outside to the ambulance.
‘I’m currently writing another accountancy book. It’s part of a series on the international flow of money, the money markets, price differentials, that sort of thing. An examination of the euro zone, currency conversions, exchange rate movements and the like. Accountancy studies, economic and socio-political evaluations of the current state of affairs. Simple stuff, really. A matter of formulae.’
The road noise and David’s voice are fantastically enervating, an endless rolling on of sound. The sun flashes through the blinds and the truck gently pitches from side to side. I give a sudden duck of the head and sit upright, wondering if I had fallen asleep. I look at David to see if he has noticed, but his eyes are closed as he talks. He doesn’t need any encouragement from the audience, or any sign of consciousness.
In an effort to wake up I try to find out more about him.
‘So you’re an author, David? Academic books?’
‘No, no, not just academia. Action books, too. A group of Texans escape the slaughter of the Alamo and have a series of adventures as they attempt to fight their way back home. I called that one: ‘Lucky Star’. A book about a brigantine in the Napoleonic Wars that escapes capture by the French near Mauritius and has a series of adventures as it attempts to sail back home. I called that one: ‘A Following Wind.’
I feel completely thrown by this, but before I can respond he says: ‘Now listen to me. Where’s my case? Have you lost it? If you’ve lost it I shall be furious. It has everything I need in it. It has a contact list with all my numbers. And why is this taking so long? If you think you can take me back to that hospital you’re very much mistaken. I refuse to be put with dead people. I shall simply walk out.’
Inevitably, when we get to the hospital, they have no record of the request.
The charge nurse on the desk drops the phone back down on its hook.
‘Well!’ she says with a smile. ‘The Bed Manager isn’t happy. What did you say that doctor’s name was?’