A man is lying on his side on the pavement outside the Beauty Clinic. A girl in a starched white coat stands over him, half in the shop and half out, both arms folded, absently sucking a red nail, staring out above the morning crowd as it flows around him. Suddenly she sees us approaching and waves enthusiastically.
‘What’s going on?’
‘This guy, he came staggering along the pavement. For some reason he stopped just there, knelt down in the doorway and then just sort of – went to sleep.’
The only thing more striking than the brilliant white of the girl’s coat is the contrast between her and the figure at her feet. Her face is so symmetrical, so carefully painted with foundation, blusher, lipstick, mascara, her eyebrows so perfectly cropped, every individual strand of her hair shining with product, she could have stepped fully formed from the head of an advertising executive. The man, on the other hand, is the brutal, unadorned animal, corrupt and cast down, his shaven and sun-burned head pitted with crescent scars, his battered face slack with drink. Lying at her feet like that, curled up on his side, he looks like the husk of something she sucked the vitality from to achieve her transcendent being.
‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know.’
I crouch down by his side, discretely pinch his shoulder and shout in his ear. ‘Come on. Wake up, mate. You can’t lie here.’
He bats my hand away.
‘Leave me alone.’
There’s a cut to his voice that makes us all a little more wary.
‘Shall I leave you to it, then?’ the girl says.
‘Absolutely. We’ll get him on the ambulance out of your way.
‘Thanks, guys,’ she says. She really means it.
He wriggles back down in an effort to get comfortable again. Shoppers almost fall over us, frowning in a confused kind of way, only finding alternative routes at the last minute.
‘Are you sick? Have you hurt yourself?’
He motions for us to go away.
‘Come on. Let’s sit you up. Then we can have a chat on the ambulance, in private. This is no good, mate. Honestly.’
Finally, we persuade him to stand up, and help him on to the ambulance. He drops himself down into a chair and starts rubbing some life back into his face. A tall, lean man bulked out with several layers of track suit tops and t-shirts, he looks as if he put on his entire wardrobe before he came out.
‘Aren’t you hot in all this?’
He drops his hands.
‘What do you want from me?’ he says.
‘We just want to reassure ourselves you’re okay. You lay down on a pavement in the middle of the morning. People were worried. That’s all. Let’s do a few checks, then if everything’s okay you can go on with your day.’
He sits back in the chair and stares into mid-air.
‘I don’t care what you do,’ he says. ‘Only do it quickly.’
Whilst Rae helps him bare an arm for the blood pressure cuff, I start writing out the sheet.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Tomasso. T tango, O oscar….’
‘And your address?’
‘Sardinia? Is that where you’re living now?’
‘That’s where I’m from.’
‘So what’s your address now?’
He gives us a postcode only, each letter phonetically again. When I ask him exactly where that is, he starts talking quickly in Italian.
‘I don’t understand you, Tommaso. I wish I did, but I don’t. You have to talk English.’
He closes his eyes and pulls his chin back as if I’ve insulted him.
‘What do you think?’ he says eventually. ‘What do you know?’
‘We’re just trying to understand what’s going on with you today, Tommaso.’
He straightens in the chair and struggles to put his arm back through all the sleeves.
‘I am a sniper,’ he says as he does it. ‘Do you know what that means? Do you know what it’s like to lie on the ground for twenty four, thirty six hours, not moving a muscle, for just one shot?’
‘Yep. That sounds difficult.’
‘You get bitten to pieces.’
‘Scorpions. Tah! Tah!’ He makes little stabbing movements in the air with a finger that make us both lean back a little.
‘Look here, my friend,’ he says, giving up on the jacket and bending down instead to roll up a trouser leg. There is a cluster of tiny scabs running up just over the sock line, like old bed bug scars.
‘Nasty,’ I say.
He drops the trouser leg and shrugs.
‘I’m a sniper. It’s what I do. But let me tell you. You walk a hundred miles, you lie down, you wait for days, you take your shot … (he smacks his hands together) … Tah! Then you wait whilst the rest of the unit clears out. You guard their back. Only then can you think about yourself. Only then can you take your chance and escape.’
He resumes his struggle with his clothing. I help him in to the last track suit sleeve. ‘But I love my country. I am a proud man. You – you don’t know what it means to fight for your country.’
Finally he’s done, and sits still in the chair.
‘Well. All your observations are fine, Tommaso. I don’t think you need to go up the hospital.’
‘Hospital? No way. Six hours on a plastic seat. For what?’