The house door is held open by an iron cat. We ring the bell and hear something like a rusty shop bell clattering deep within.
Frank pushes the door open a little further.
‘Someone’s not paid the bill.’
A long and narrow hallway leads off ahead of us, utterly dark, what little light there is from the street lamps unable to penetrate the dense gloom further than the threshold.
Frank fumbles around on the wall to his right trying to locate a switch. Suddenly a voice from the end of the corridor: ‘Hey guys. Come on in.’
There’s something coolly settled about the voice, like a birdwatcher speaking in a hide. Frank finds a switch and an overhead bulb snicks on, lighting up a tall man standing at the far end hugging a carrier bag of possessions to his chest. The man seems momentarily stunned, then says: ‘Did you guys want to come in and chat, or are you fixing to go straight off?’
‘Well seeing as you’re on your feet, let’s just go out to the vehicle.’
‘Sure. No problem.’ As he turns to lock his door we both go back outside.
‘Yeah – like I’m going down for a chat in there,’ says Frank to me out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Champagne service,’ the man says loudly, suddenly right behind us. He strides on ahead to the ambulance.
‘Right,’ says Frank.
Even though the man is sitting down, his long frame fills the ambulance to such an extent it seems to tip in his direction. He is wearing a knitted black suit and patterned blue shirt, with an expression on his face as heavy as his clothes: his widely-spaced brown eyes are strangely flattened out, and there is a slack fall to the cheeks beneath them, a smooth drop, livid as wet clay.
I offer to take his bag, but he grips on to it.
‘No. Thanks. I’m good with that.’
‘So,’ says Frank, sitting down on the trolley. ‘We haven’t been told very much.’
‘What’s to tell? Unless you know more’n you’re letting on – which wouldn’t surprise me. Do you?’
‘No. We were just told breathing problems?’
‘Breathing problems? No. That’s not it at all. Breathing problems? Why would they say that? Jeez. Now you really do have me worried.’
‘Never mind. Just tell us why we’re here tonight.’
‘I bet you’re thinking – damned Yankee! I wouldn’t blame you. But I’ve been here a while, just never lost the accent. So I s’pose I must qualify for something or other. I married a Brit, but she left me. I guess she had her reasons, nothing no rational person could identify.’
‘How are you in yourself?’
‘Me? Good. I’m good. Excepting for this damned infection I can’t seem to get on top of. I was in hospital with it, discharged, but now it looks like it’s flaring up again.’
‘And that’s why we’re here? You have an infection somewhere?’
‘That’s why you’re here, sir.’
He looks at us.
‘I don’t want to be a nuisance,’ he says.
At the hospital he ducks quickly out of the ambulance like a marine sprinting out of a helicopter.
‘I gotta have a cigarette before I go in that place,’ he says, pulling a pack out of his jacket and shaking it. ‘You guys don’t mind, d’you?’
‘I’ll go on in and book you in.’
He sparks up, and leaves the cigarette in his mouth as we talk. It bobs up and down at the corner of his lips.
‘So why were you sitting in the dark?’ I ask him.
‘Why was I sitting in the dark? Because I wanted to see that no-good son-of-a-bitch landlord if he came in. I wanted to have the drop on him.’
‘Why? What’s going on?’
‘Nothing. He’s crazy, s’all. He tried to have me killed.’
‘When I first move in I pass him and his girlfriend in the hall. So I was nice and polite, say hi and how’re ya, looking straight at her – and there’s my mistake right there. Turns out he’s jealous. Next thing I know, he’s hiring three guys to whack me in the pub. But I’m pretty handy. I went to him next day and say “Hey, fella. What’s going on? What were you thinking?” Of course he said nothing, being a rather yellow livered individ’al. But from then on he’s been up to stuff.’
‘Banging on the walls, constantly. All through the night.’
‘Can’t you move?’
He looks at me, takes the fag out of his mouth and spits off to the side.
‘Where?’ he says.
Silence. The A&E parking lot is filled with vehicles, but strangely there’s no-one about. It feels eerie, as if people have abandoned everything in a hurry.
‘Yeah,’ he continues. ‘My wife left me. I tried to find out why but there’s a point where logic and emotion separate. And you know what? I think there’s a whole area for research that’s being neglected because it ain’t PC and it don’t make for comfortable reading.’
‘What’s that, then?’
‘The effect of hormonal imbalances on the female psyche. I’ve done some work on it myself, but you meet the same, stonewalling attitudes. I rang up this female neurologist. As soon as I started to ask about the effect of oestrogen on a woman’s ability to think rationally, she hung up on me. It’s obvious, but you’re just not allowed to even think it. Women are making bad decisions day in day out for no other reason than their hormones are up the shit, but nothing’s done about it, families suffer, marriages break down, all for what?’
Frank saunters over.
‘All booked in,’ he says. ‘Finished your cigarette?’
The man drops it and grinds it out beneath is boot.
‘Breathing difficulties!’ he laughs. ‘Well I reckon the smoking’s fixed that.’